Certain Women

More of a collection of short stories loosely connected by little more than geography and ships passing in the night.

The first part, featuring Laura Dern as a weary lawyer, exposes a truth many women have felt – “If I were a man I could just do my job and people would take me seriously”.

There is an inconsequential character link to the second part – and this is the first time I have ever watched Michelle Williams and felt she was not firing on all cylinders. I’m a huge fan of hers, and was left thinking there should have been more to this section.

The third part was, for me, the strongest section, and this was due entirely to Lily Gladstone. Not to say Kristen Stewart isn’t good (she is, and I love her work in general too). But Gladstone was mesmerising. Those moments when the camera fixed on her face and her whole soul was there to read. A winning performance for sure.

I’m fine with these three strands not tying up to form one narrative, but with the parts being variable in their level of impact, this didn’t bowl me over. Reichardt saved the best for last, though.

Logan

A film about ageing, ailing and family; this is not your usual superhero movie. In many ways.

We’ve perhaps become accustomed to these cinematic universes being filled with lots of characters, either helping each other out or beating each other up. Here, we get a small unit, almost a family, who mostly end up in fights because they are protecting each other. Some of the scenes between an ailing Charles Xavier and an ageing Logan are incredibly touching in their simplicity and are rooted in real-life family experiences with which many of us are familiar.

These tender moments are in marked contrast to the violence. It’s brutal, and it’s not just a one-off. Each strike, each bullet, really hurts. Wounds are fatal.

And just as we come to terms with the reality of Wolverine’s acts, and realise that it’s been like this for him all along, a young girl joins in and the violence emanating from her is even more striking.

If I have one criticism it is the convenient ‘out’ that is available to the group just before the final journey is embarked upon – it’s a MacGuffin of the highest order and marred the storytelling for me a little.

But apart from that, even though the end is inevitable and it’s only a movie, I was genuinely saddened to leave the company of our hero. And the last shot is very nicely done.

 

The Lego Batman Movie

Very entertaining while watching it, and some great jokes – particularly for those of us who have a soft spot for Batman of the 1960s. I don’t know though – maybe there was just too much going on to take it all in? But good fun.

John Wick: Chapter 2

I unexpectedly quite liked the first John Wick film, so I was happy to go back for seconds.

Suffering slightly from the ‘difficult second album’ effect, John Wick: Chapter 2 is nevertheless more of the same – little plot and some excellent action scenes.

So yeah, I’m thinking I enjoyed it.

Manchester Film Festival: Day 4

Final day and I was making sure I squeezed the most out of my festival pass!

The day started with Planet Ottakring, an Austrian gangster comedy with underlying commentary on inner-city Vienna’s diverse immigrant culture and the economic issues surrounding more deprived areas like Ottakring. The mood is along the lines of Run, Lola, Run rather than The Godfather, and deserved a lot more love than I think it got.

A second foreign language film followed – Når Solen Skinner (When the Sun Shines) is a Danish film focussing on a terminally ill teenager and the carefree (or is she?) care assistant who takes him on an adventure outside of the hospice. Yes, it’s very Fault In Our Stars, but without the anger – the big positives are the skilled performances from the two young leads, Elias Munk and Laura Kjær. It was entertaining, but Planet Ottakring was my preferred foreign language film of the day. (Edit: Når Solen Skinner won Best International Film, so again, what do I know?)

Technically also an international film, but as it’s in English presumably it didn’t count, Cardboard Gangsters tracks the activities of a group of low level drug dealers in North Dublin, who decide it’s time to step up to the big league and come across resistance from already existing gangs. It’s well written, allowing for a tremendous performance from John Connors which is really what the film hangs on – without him it would be a very different piece. (Edit: John Connors won the award for Best Actor, and the film picked up not only Best Film, but Film of the Festival. I know, I don’t know the difference between these two categories either. In my opinion, it was Connors’ performance alone which won all of the categories for the film – the scene below was the subject of much discussion during the Q&A.)

Finally, Katie Says Goodbye. Local lass Olivia Cooke was on hand to introduce and do a Q&A afterwards, and did her very best to stick up for the film and for her character. I admire her for trying. But this was a film which took a particular stance with its attitude to sex workers, to sexual assault, to the economic and social issues which poorly paid women endure, and seemed to suggest that a smile and a good heart will conquer everything. Not one of the men that we see on screen treats Katie anyway near properly or with any respect. Even those who appear to be kind to her and even like her are still using her, and most of those should know better and/or are in positions of authority where they should not be allowed to get away with such behaviour. It was an unusual choice for the closing gala, and I think it did the ‘Women In Film’ strand a terrible disservice. (Edit: Olivia Cooke won Best Actress.)

Manchester Film Festival: Day 3

Three features to comment on today.

First up, Josephine Doe – yet another film in which the main character has a mental illness and things aren’t quite what they seem. Shot in black & white which appeared to mirror a muted range of emotions for the main character, I was waiting all along for some big reveal or explanation which, when something akin to this came, I couldn’t actually see what was happening because of the camera shot so I remain clueless. The character of the sister seemed particularly contradictory and left me wanting a rewrite. (Edit: This ended up winning the award for Best Screenplay, so what do I know?)

Preceded by short Running Through Life – a woman runs while mentally beating herself up about why she’s not perfect. We’ve all been there love. (Edit: This won best Experimental Short Film. Perhaps for its technical aspects. I hope.)

Time for some music! No Roads In not only followed the process of a group of Canadian musicians recording an album in a ramshackle house surrounded by wind-swept wheat fields, but also provided live performances by Blake Reid and Aaron Young. Beautiful cinematography, great music, and I intend to buy the album when it appears.

My final film of the day was a lesser of two evils choice, and I was expecting not to enjoy it too much as the Wes Anderson references were rife in the promotional material.

However, Creedmoria turned out to be the best film I’ve seen so far as far as the festival goes. Reminders of The Royal Tenenbaums are inevitable to an extent, and yet main character Candy is rooted in a definite recognisable reality, with the quirkiness being her own, not that of the world in which she lives. I don’t think the trailer below does it justice, to be honest. (Edit: Winner of Best Production, Best Director, and Audience Pick.)

Manchester Film Festival: Day 2

Today’s features largely chosen because of their timings.

The first screening was Stanley A Man of Variety, starring only Timothy Spall. Spall plays a man suffering from mental illness, in addition to all the people he sees in his head as a result of the illness. These characters are largely variety show characters from last century who may or may not be familiar to the audience depending on their age. While this is an undoubtedly great range of performances from Spall, the film itself was tricky to watch. During the Q&A Spall himself said they were aiming for a cross between Kind Hearts and Coronets and Eraserhead, which is as good a summation as any. 

The short screened prior to this was The Copyist, a Hungarian short in which an office sexual encounter is suggested by images snatched from the photocopier. It’s literally a film of photocopied images.

Second film of the evening was The Black Prince, a story spanning decades about an Indian prince forcibly relocated to England after his father was killed as the British claimed Punjab, and brought up by nobles close to Queen Victoria. There is a huge amount of history to be told in this true story of the suppression of Sikhs and the colonisation of Punjab, and much is made of the part religion plays in the identity of the main characters.

Even with a running time of over two hours, this felt like it was skipping over some moments and skimming past others that were historically important and I found myself desperate to learn more about the man at the centre. Truth be told, this would probably have made a really good six-part Sunday evening drama series, which would have provided sufficient time to flesh out some of the characters and explain events more thoroughly, particularly to people like myself who have no knowledge of the history being covered.

Manchester Film Festival: Day 1

This year’s MANIFF looks a little different – it’s a young festival (2017 is its third year) and so this is to be expected.

This time around, there seem to be fewer films and only one venue. I don’t know if there have been simply fewer submissions, or if it was a conscious decision to makes screenings more accessible. I had booked the Friday off work in anticipation of attending and supporting day time screenings, but there are none on the Friday during the day. One up-side is that, with all films being screened at Printworks, it makes getting around the festival a whole lot more practical.

The “opening night gala presentation”, also part of the ‘Women In Film’ strand, was the Lisa Edwards-directed Alfie Boe – On the Wheels of a Dream – more of which later

The main “feature” was preceded by three short films: The Last Laugh (dir Paul Hendy), One Last Dance (dir Luke Losey) and Taubman (dir Ben Price). I really enjoyed all of these. The Last Laugh focusses on legendary British comedians Tommy Cooper, Eric Morecambe and Bob Monkhouse quipping on their insecurities and fear of dying on stage (in a comedic sense – older viewers will recognise that Cooper actually did suffer a heart attack on stage mid-act which ended his life). One Last Dance offers a lovely snap-shot of a moment of grief and bereavement, and Taubman throws a timely eye over government surveillance, hacking, and religious persecution All three worth a watch for different reasons.

The main event followed swiftly. At 56 minutes long/short, Alfie Boe – On the Wheels of a Dream barely qualifies as a feature. I presume it was chosen to open the festival because of Alfie Boe’s North West connections, and because the director is female, therefore supporting the Women In Film strand.

It was a brave choice.

The filmmakers had access to Alfie Boe , his musicians and management team during his US tours in 2012/13. During this time, Boe talks frankly about wanting to change musical direction away from his opera roots, and sets out to do so. We see him play to tiny audiences in large theatres, and it’s tough for him.

The film collapses to its conclusion with some titles informing that he broke with his management team (no explanation ) and was last seen back on Broadway in Les Miserables (in 2015). The dream didn’t pan out, but we don’t know why, and there is no information after 2015. The film seems to have missed its proverbial boat. There’s a point during the film in which Boe says he sang his last note as Valjean and realised that his life would never be the same again. Why? Why couldn’t we explore this? This is interesting!

Instead we get Boe singing an interminable soft rock song which seemed to be a metaphor for the whole film. It’s no surprise that Boe is not promoting this film himself, as it probably for him represents a failed dream. Which is sad, but the film’s drama surely should be not delicately commenting that it failed, but exploring why it failed.

I don’t like to have a downer on something someone has put a lot of time and effort into creating, but this is an ITV2 Sunday night programme for the Alfie Boe fans, and not a film festival opening gala feature.

I’ve not been to that many film festivals, but I was taken aback to hear the producers and directors (who were sitting near me) clap and cheer their own names when they appeared on the screen, talk to each other at points during the screening, and then woop and begin the applause for their own film as the end-credits rolled. If it is usual, then film festivals are very strange places.

The Great Wall

Clearly a film that has been made for showing in 3D (which I didn’t).

While it was a bit silly (particularly the monsters) there were a few things which I really liked looking at. There’s a gorgeous scene with some stained glass which looked absolutely stunning. And the bungee-jumping blue ladies were magnificent.

I also appreciated the US/China collaboration on a film of this scale and this genre, the fact that the female lead (played by Tian Jing) was independently kick-ass, and there was no need to manufacture a romantic entanglement to motivate the story.

Beyond that though, just a bit silly.

However, that did give me time to realise that both Matt Damon and Andy Lau have effectively played the same role – in The Departed and its original version Infernal Affairs respectively. Wonder if they had a chat about it?

Free Fire – Preview & Q+A

A new film by Ben Wheatley, particularly a preview and post-screen Q&A with the director, will inevitably be a draw for many cinema fans.

Me? The cast was the attraction. Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer and Brie Larson were the main pull-factor, plus an additional cast which includes Michael Smiley, Sam Riley, Noah Taylor and Jack Reynor (recently seen as the older brother in Sing Street). There’s also Sharlto Copley, but … well …

Deliberately knowing absolutely nothing about the storyline before I went in was an excellent move on my part! There is little plot, and it’s mostly action but without moving around. I know.

The premise is a gang of IRA gunmen (led by Murphy) turn up to purchase weapons from a gunrunner (Copley), facilitated by a third party (Hammer). Things don’t go to plan, and the majority of the film is an almighty shoot-out in an enclosed space.

Apart from assembling a great case, Wheatley does two things perfectly. One is to wrangle the ‘action’ in such a way that, despite the large number of people involved, and the various factions they represent, it’s always clear who is where and what they’re up to. And every now and again Wheatley ensures that you’re so involved in watching one interaction take place that you’ll forget that someone else was in the process of  – BAM! They appear when you aren’t expecting them and add another layer to the chaos. Additionally, as everyone has their turn at literally getting caught in the crossfire, the action moves gradually to ground level which brings a whole new dimension to a chase sequence.

The second thing Wheatley has done so well is to integrate quips, asides and humour into proceedings. This is a funny film – and in fact it does need moments of levity as a counter to the otherwise continuous shooting and battering. Some of the humour arises from the ridiculousness of the situation, but also from the sardonic nature of the characters – Smiley and Hammer in particular have some great verbal exchanges which had the cinema audience hooting with laughter.

Full marks to the sound team at HOME who turned the volume up for the event to such an extent that I could actually feel my teeth rattling in my mouth at some of the ricocheting gunshots.

Brie Larson is the only on-screen female in this ensemble cast and while her role is no less important than any of the others, it feels a little underdone in that the percentage of female presence is tiny compared to the amount of testosterone on display. And Sharlto Copley – well, he was actually a good choice to play this role – although quite how much acting he’s doing, I wouldn’t like to say.

I’m not a de facto fan of Wheatley’s carefully managed chaos, but I had fun watching this in the same open-mouthed way I enjoyed watching the first John Wick incarnation.

Following the screening, Ben Wheatley and Michael Smiley answered some (for once not fawning) questions from the audience. Some of the responses involve spoilers which it would be unfair to reveal, but Wheatley’s explanation of how Martin Scorsese came to be Executive Producer was awesome. And it was good to learn that Michael Smiley is completely jealous of Armie Hammer, describing him as “too lovely and accomplished”, before unleashing some choice language about how handsome, funny and downright perfect he is in real life.

Wheatley and Smiley make a formidable pairing both in person and  on-screen, and it was a privilege to witness them in action.