Thursday 18 December 2014

Films of the Year 2014: Part 2 - women.

In comparison to 2013 it feels like a lean year for women in film. There are notable exceptions however – in Indian cinema especially, but I’ll cover that in a different post.
Two Days, One Night

Five women are central to three of the most significant films of the year. Marion Cotillard’s performance in Two Days, One Night was the best of the year. Melisa Sözen and Demet Akbag are fantastic in Winter Sleep whilst Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska are key to the success of Ida. All three films have attracted significant criticism however. In Sight and Sound Tony Rayns review of Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne’s latest film was annoyingly patronising but elsewhere it garnered a mass of 5 star reviews. For most critics Niri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme D’Or winner doesn’t quite possess the quality of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) or Uzak (2002) and, at 3 hours 16 mins, is too long. Jonathan McCalmont’s criticisms of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida are, as always, intriguing. Nonetheless for me they were the three most intense and spellbinding cinematic experiences of the year – they are all in my top five.

Other notable performances in very good films include Hilary Swank in The Homesman, Bérénice Bejo in The Past, Mia Wasikowska in Tracks, Angeli Bayani in Norte, The End of History and Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin.

The Past 2
Behind the camera it was exciting to see new films from Katell Quillévéré (Suzanne), Joanna Hogg (Exhibition) and Kelly Reichardt (Night Moves). Even better perhaps was a debut - Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook with a brilliant lead performance by Essie Davis.

One of the joys of 2014 was the return of Lukas Moodysson, in great form, with We Are the Best. At the turn of the century Moodysson made three magnificent films – Show Me Love (1997)  Together (2000) and Lilya 4-ever (2002). Since then he has lost his way but this year’s film, based on a graphic novel by his wife Coco, is a lovely, grown-up tale of three young teenagers starting a punk band in the early 80s. Mira Barkhammar as Bobo, Mira Grosin as Klara and Liv LeMoyne as Hedvig are given a mature, focused script and achieve wonders – they are all utterly brilliant. On one level this could have joined Queen and Pride on my ‘most pleasurable films of 2014’ but at his best Moodysson achieves a tone that is at once funny, ebullient, melancholic and determinedly serious. If anyone wants to see what ‘strong female characters’ look like then watch this film. The girls are both incredibly normal – fickle, jealous, manipulative – and wonderfully anarchic – I won’t spoil the scenes which show their determination, spirit and love of life. I’ve watched it three times – every time it gets better, but it’s also the way the film draws you in each time that is so deceptively clever. The soundtrack is a belter and the cinematography by Ulf Brantås is perfect.

2015 looks like it will be an exciting year with Ana Lily Amapour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden, Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood and Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders all released in the first half of the year.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Films - September, October and November.

The autumn is usually the best time for cinema but for once I don't think it's quite matched up to the spring. That said Pride was the most easily enjoyable film of the year whilst Ida might be the best. I usually hate Mike Leigh films - his caricatures and his patronizing way with working class characters get in the way of any enjoyment. Mr Turner still suffered from these faults but less so and there is much that is good in it. Some thought A Most Wanted Man slow and pedestrian but it had me hooked from the first moment. '71 was one of the nicest surprises of the year.
   I missed Locke and Joe at the cinema yet both are fantastic. Tom Hardy and Nicholas Cage pull off two of the best performances of the year.

At the cinema:
  • Pride

  • A Most Wanted Man
  • '71
  • Gone Girl
  • Nightcrawler
  • Say When
  • Mr Turner
  • Ida

Ida shows the rich glories a monochrome palette can achieve in film
  • The Imitation Game
  • Haider
A Still From 'Haider'
  • Interstellar
  • Paddington
On DVD/Blu-ray:
  • Plein Soleil (1960)
  • Sophie's Choice (1982)
  • Locke
  • Joe
  • Starred Up
  • Mary Kom
  • Miss Lovely
Miss Lovely
  • Khoobsurat
  • Gulabi Gang
  • Tell No One (2006)

Films of the Year 2014: Part 1 - Kangana Ranaut in Queen

Queen and Pride: the most enjoyable cinema experiences of 2014.

The two most enjoyable films of the year were Matthew Warchus's Pride and Vikas Bahl’s Queen. Beyond those two 22 Jump Street was a lot of fun whilst Guardians of the Galaxy had lots of good moments. The most enjoyable blockbuster was surprisingly Captain America: The Winter Soldier – who woulda thought it? Here I want to write about Queen.

Queen was a ‘super-hit’ in India and is the 14th highest grossing film of the year. It would be easy to make fun of this statistic – most of the top 10 are fairly bog standard Bollywood blockbusters so why pay any attention to box office numbers?
Two Indian women sit on a picnic table. One is crying.
First the plot: Rani (Kangana Ranaut) is about to get married, but her fiancé (Rajkummar Rao), back from London, calls off the wedding days before. Rani is devastated but eventually decides she would still like to go by herself on her dream honeymoon to Europe; first to Paris and then to Amsterdam. Her parents acquiesce and what follows is a vibrant journey of self-discovery and liberation.

You really have to appreciate what an unusual film this is. Kangana Ranaut carries the film completely - she is extraordinary as a meek, scared and shy young woman who becomes increasing confident, quietly determined and open to all the new experiences around her. Sure there are male characters but there is no male lead. This is still rare, though of course, becoming slightly less rare – recently we’ve had Mardaani, Kahaani, English Vinglish and Mary Kom.

Next, the other main female character Vijayalakshmi (Lisa Haydon) who befriends Rani in Paris is a hard drinking, cannabis smoking, promiscuous, single parent. And, here is the surprising bit; the character is a lovely, warm-hearted, brilliant human being. There are moments when Rani quietly wants her to tone it all down but there is no critique of her behaviour in the film. If anyone wants to direct me to similar characters in Hindi film, then please tell. This is a big two fingers up to the moral majority who believe women like that are sluts, slags and, frankly, lesser human beings.

Now get ready to be shocked again. The main male Indian character is a fairly pathetic excuse of a man. Set against him are four men Rani meets in Amsterdam: a charming Italian restaurateur and three students, Taka from Japan, Oleksander from Russia and Tim from France. All the men are fun loving, indulge in drinking and boisterous behaviour but again, are sympathetic characters portrayed with humour and warmth. And Tim is, hold your breath, of African descent – yes Bollywood fans he is a person of colour!  If you think my tone is a little too facetious, fair enough, but let’s be clear: non-Indian male characters in Bollywood films are usually little more than crude stereotypes and objects of humour.
Queen 2014 Movie Images 540x377 Queen 2014 Movie Images
Most Bollywood movies that try to confront the bizarre cultural assumptions of modern India get trapped in their own contradictions or can’t quite go all the way and bail out with too many compromises. I won’t spoil the ending of Queen but I will say the film gets it just right. Of course there are issues. In some respects the film is very much a fantasy of liberation. Would Rani’s parents have let her go to Europe unaccompanied? Would anybody be lucky enough to meet such a tremendous bunch of strangers?  There is also one awful scene in a brothel that manages to make prostitution seem like a Disney dream and one other in a sex shop that is perhaps a little too broad and relies too much on Rani’s innocence. Furthermore the action has been transferred to Europe and so it will be easy for Indian audiences to feel that the film’s feminist sensibilities and its social criticism, is too easily divorced from their own experiences. Unfortunately I doubt whether any one would have the guts to make a similar film set in India. Thankfully the final scenes ground Rani back in India and the audience is confident that this is a woman who has changed for good.
Furthermore it’s all done with a grace, tenderness, integrity and sense of fun that Hollywood rarely achieves; for the most part there is a delicious lightness of touch to it all and it never feels preachy. I left the film on a kind of Bollywood sugar rush – excited, emotional and a little bit hyper. I’ve watched it since and it’s still brilliant.
My experience so far of sharing Queen with friends and with Hindu, Sikh and Muslim girls at school is fascinating. Some of the younger teenagers seemingly take on the moral indignation of their parents and don’t know what to make of it. Even some of the older ones feel uncomfortable watching it with older members of their family. One even started watching it with a family group but had to switch it off when members of the older generation complained about the content. Thankfully she, and several others, have loved it.
Queen’s super-hit status in India would seem to indicate that a large section of the cinema going public loved it too. I've decided to allow myself the belief that this holds a small source of hope for the future. For any Westerners who have yet to experience the joys of Hindi cinema, Queen is a big-hearted wonder of a film and shows Hollywood how to make a comedy-drama without the lashings of sexist, homophobic nonsense we have become so accustomed to. Treat yourself and see it.