Category: Film Reviews

Angela and the Apocalypse

In the past couple of weeks I have watched two excellent films on similar themes, ‘Time of the Wolf’ (2003, Michael Haneke) and ‘The Road’ (2009, John Hillcoat based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Cormac McCarthy).

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Le temps du loup: Out of the frying pan and into the fire

In ‘Time of the Wolf’ a French family flee to their countryside home after an unexplained catastrophic disaster.  On arrival at the house the family discovers that the house is already occupied by intruders, there is an altercation during which the father is killed.  The mother (Anne) takes her two children (Ben and Arina) away from the house and moves through the village asking for supplies.  Eventually the family make their way to a train station where camp with a group of refugees.  They wait for the arrival of a train which will they hope will take them to a better place, although it is uncertain when (or if) the train will ever arrive.  In the aftermath of the disaster clean water is scarce and most of the animals have died.  Life at the camp becomes increasingly harsh as fear and survival instinct force all structures of conventional society to break down.  Violence and mob law prevails.  When the family responsible for the death of Anna’s husband arrive at the camp, she immediately accuses them publicly – but with absence of proof nothing can be done.  Arina befriends a young boy, but he is cast away from the camp after he is accused of stealing.  Lying awake one night Arina and Ben witness the rape of a young girl while a knife is held to her throat – the next day she commits suicide.  Finally at the end of the film Ben overhears a story about a group of angels jumping into the fire to save humanity.  Alone at night Ben builds a fire, takes off his clothes and prepares to jump into it – but is prevented from doing so by a guard just in time.  The guards holds him and tries to comfort him.

I’ll be honest, ‘Time of the Wolf’ really gave me the creeps; I watched it right before bedtime and had nightmares.  I watched ‘The White Ribbon’ by Michael Haneke some time ago and it seems that he is rather at adept at portraying creepy intense children.  Ben (played by Lucas Biscombe) loses the ability to speak as a result of trauma, so this is an exquisite and almost silent performance.  The very final scene where Ben almost leaps into the flames was incredibly powerful and will remain in my mind long after the finer details of this movie have begun to dissolve.

I read several reviews of this film and found quite a lot of complaining about the nature of the disaster – which is never fully explained.  Personally I think that this lack of explanation works effectively with the confusion, fear and uncertainty of the situation.  It also fits in with reality . . . speculatively.  I think.  In the wake of an apocalyptic disaster all communication lines beyond the face to face close down, and it is not so much what happened that is important – but how to survive the aftermath.

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On the road

‘The Road’ was written by Cormac McCarthy in 2006, and released as a film in 2009.  The themes are incredibly similar to ‘Time  of the Wolf’ although I would argue that this film is a bit more ‘hardcore’, probably because it extends years into the aftermath of the disaster (as opposed to weeks) and really plumbs the depths of the human will to survive.  The characters are not given names in the book, but referred to as ‘boy’ and ‘man’ or father/son.  This is the same in the film; and is a clever device because it hints at the anonymity and humanity of the story.  These guys could be your dad or your son, they could be you.

The man (Viggo Mortensen) wakes one night to find that there has been some kind of disaster, outside everything is burning.    Through a series of flashbacks we see his life before the apocalypse with his wife, and slowly chart their life in the years of the aftermath up to the present situation.  His wife was pregnant before the disaster, and later gives birth to a son.  As the years pass the earth begins to dies, the small animals are gone and the trees are dead – things become difficult.  Rather than be assaulted and killed by a roaming gang, or live in hardship on the road the wife leaves – and presumably commits suicide.  Knowing that he cannot survive the winter where he is, the man sets out on a journey south to the coast with his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in tow.  They travel through a grey, desolate, post-apocalyptic world; afraid and suspicious of every other human being that they encounter.  Cannibal tribes hunt in packs along the road, and the boy and his father do their best to avoid them while scavenging for food in empty houses.  Along the way they encounter gangs, thieves, and a blind old man who muses on what it would be like to be the last man alive.

Similar to ‘Time of the Wolf’ the exact nature of the catastrophe is not revealed.  And yeah, it works well here too.  The nature of the disaster is not really relevant to the story.  Suicide looms in both films as an escape from terrible situations, in both instances it seems that death might arrive soon away, but the characters are left to consider how much suffering they will have to put up with in the mean time.

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A film for Bloomsday

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Vienna after hours

Happy Bloomsday everyone!  As you know I went to university in Dublin, and today is a rather important date in Dublin’s calendar as 16th June 1904 was when the events of James Joyce’s most famous creation ‘Ulysses’ took place.  ‘Bloomsday’ gets it’s name from the protagonist of the novel, Leopold Bloom, who takes an epic journey around Dublin mimicking Homer’s Odyssey.  In real life 16th June was the day that James Joyce met his wife Nora Barnacle.  Unfortunately I’m not apt to give a great summary of Ulysses because I have not read it (!) and I’m not a huge fan of Joyce or modernism in general.  Unsurprisingly I had no particular wish to take a term long course on Ulysses where a chapter was painstakingly picked apart each week.  I’d consider that a slow death indeed, although plenty of people thought this was pretty much the pinnacle of their Dublin English degree experience.  Let’s just say my time for Joycean enjoyment has not yet arrived, maybe I’ll think Ulysses is the greatest thing ever in 20 years time.  Maybe.  In which case I’ll regret my time spent as a literature student in Dublin dilly dallying with other literary greats and  cringing every time an extract from Finnegan’s Wake or a story from Dubliner’s would appear on a reading list.  As an addendum to this I would like to add, incidentally, that I have read James Joyce’s love letters to Nora Barnacle (or rather, I had them read to me by a significant other who thought this was highly romantic amusing) – and I can certainly vouch for their entertainment value, as much as they are in the literary gutter 😉

Anyway, I digress.  ‘Before Sunrise’ directed by Richard Linklater is a film which takes place on the 16th June, and it is peppered with references to Ulysses.  While on a train from Budapest American student Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets Celine (Julie Delpy) on her way to Paris, and he talks her into getting off the train in Vienna to explore the city with him.  The pair wander around the city as it begins to get dark and have a series of encounters with the locals.  Over the course of the evening as the sun begins to set the pair get to know each other better and become close, gradually ending up in a park before they have to part at sunrise so that Jesse can catch his flight home.  They vow to meet again at the train station in six months time, but do not exchange phone numbers or contact details.  I was just about to watch this film again because I have been thinking a lot of my own summer travels.  I would like to say ‘impending’ summer travels, but they still seem so far away . . . in reality, 7 weeks, depending on my work situation (unstable).  I know that rationally speaking 7 weeks is nothing, but it might as well be 7 years – it seems like an eternity.  I am going to Berlin for the long term, but I am planning several weeks of pre-Berlin travel with an open schedule.  I would dearly love to go to Vienna, where this film is set, so it seemed like an appropriate teaser.  I will also probably be travelling by train, so again this is a good film for stirring my imagination.  Obviously ‘Before Sunrise’ is your ideal interrailing scenario.  Meet an attractive foreigner on the train, get off in an appropriately romantic European city in the summertime, and let the adventure begin.

It is pure coincidence that I have decided to watch this film today of all days, in a weird and tenuous way I feel like my past (Dublin) and imminent future (trains, Europe, Vienna?) have come together here.  Both stories involve exploring a city (Dublin/Vienna) over the 16th/17th of June.  Both involve visits to a graveyard.  Jesse’s real name is James and, like Joyce, he spent a long time wandering around Europe.  I suspect there may be a few more links, but as I haven’t read the book and I’ve just lifted these facts from IMDb – you’ll have to spot them on your own.

For those of you in Dublin, or otherwise Ulysses enthusiasts I hope you enjoyed your day and celebrated appropriately!

Burdens of a war photographer

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Shell-shocked US marine, Hue, Vietnam, February 1968. Don McCullin

War photographers have a thankless job to be sure.  Gaining entry into some of the most dangerous parts of the world armed only with a camera and their intuition they experience life on the raw edge.  They have that rare position as an impartial spectator, neither unlucky civilian caught in the cross the fire nor rebel, nor soldier armed to the teeth, the war photographer is a rare breed.  Is it narcissism, to enter such a world for own your kicks?  To advance your career and win a Pulitzer Prize, to make money at the expense of man taking his last breath, or a rotting corpse stuck to the roadside?  Is it the ultimate sacrifice to brave an interminable amount of pain and suffering to deliver a message to the outside world, let them know what a war is really about – and see if they can stand it?

This weekend I watched the documentary ‘McCullin’ about British war photographer Don McCullin.  Growing up in blitz devastated London in the 40’s and 50’s McCullin was born into a landscape ravaged by war, and he began by taking photographs of gangs and slums, the impoverished and hard working.  After successfully selling a few photographs of gang members he had grown up with to the Observer McCullin went to Berlin to watch the wall go up, and then on to Biafra, Vietnam, and Northern Ireland.

His photographs capture the essence of all it was to be at war in the late twentieth century.  The shell-shocked soldier in Vietnam, who looks as if he has his eyes fixed permanently on a horror he cannot forget.  McCullin said the soldier never moved, or even blinked, while he was taking the photograph.  It has been observed that in Vietnam almost none of the most well known photographs were posed – a poignant fact from a televised war.

It wasn’t the corpses or smashed in faces that affected me most while watching this documentary, but brief footage of some kwashiorkor bloated bellied, toothpick legged children of Biafra struggling to climb a single step.  The kids were naked, anonymous, just hours from dying in the dust – and it was painful to watch.  When there are so many it is difficult to remember one individual, but Don McCullin spoke of one albino child who approached him out of the crowd and tried to hold his hand.

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One face in a crowd. Albino child in Biafra, Don McCullin

Biafra brings me on to my next point – following the theme this weekend I also watched ‘The Bang Bang Club’.  This film is based on the true story of several young photographers in South Africa who captured images of violent clashes between the ANC and IFP in the early 1990’s.

Amongst them was Kevin Carter, the first photographer to capture the gruesome execution method of ‘necklacing’ whereby a tire is placed around the victim’s neck and set alight.  However, it is Carter’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a little girl dying in the Sudan while a vulture looks on that really caught my attention.  I first became aware of this photograph in a round about way while reading Mark Z. Danieleweski’s ‘House of Leaves’.  One of the main characters is a photographer based on Carter who took a ‘similar’ photograph of a dying girl.  In the book, the character is haunted by thoughts of the little girl he did nothing to help and when he becomes lost in his labyrinthine house it is not the Minotaur, but the girl who stalks his uneasy mind.

In real life Kevin Carter too was stalked by his subject.  He was unable to answer questions about what happened to the girl, although he later claimed to have picked her up and carried her to a feeding station.  It’s possible to argue that there were two vultures present – the one in the photograph, and the one behind the lens.  In the moments that Carter was photographing death, could he have been doing something to prevent it?  Or was exposing this scene to the world enough?  Undoubtedly the weight of this debate contributed to Carter’s suicide in 1994.

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Dying girl, vulture and photographer. Kevin Carter, 1993 (Pulitzer Prize 1994). ‘And the viewer is in the same position as the lackey behind the camera; the experience is sickening’ – Susan Sontag ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’

Don McCullin also mentioned being criticized for merely profiting from the pain of others, although he attests that he did help of course – as any human being would have.  Moving around from atrocity to atrocity must surely take its toll though.  Like that story of a girl little girl walking a long a beach covered in hundreds of starfish and throwing them back into the sea one at time – it’s impossible to save them all.  Don McCullin comes across as a very calm, measured and somber person on film and I’m inclined to think this is a temperament either developed as a result of exposure to war, or else well equipped to deal with it.  Nevertheless he openly states that he was a ‘war junkie’, chasing the immediacy of life and that it eventually wrecked his marriage.

In ‘The Bang Bang Club’ the photographers are constantly drinking, smoking, chasing girls, attempting to make the most of every precious second of life, and blot out the atrocities of the day.  The photographers chased ‘bang bang’ until it took away everything they had.  Ken Oosterbroek was killed in Thokoza township fighting in 1994, Greg Marinovich was received a gunshot wound in the same clash and has since been shot several more times, Joao Silva lost both legs below the knee in Afghanistan in 2010 – and Kevin Carter never made it that far.  Whatever fame or glory a war photographer receives, he certainly pays his dues – one way or another.

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Burning man being attacked with a machete, Greg Marinovich, Soweto, 1990 (Pulitzer Prize)

Crazy Lives

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Is there anyone out there who WOULDN’T like to marry Felicity Jones?

When I first saw the advert for Like Crazy at the cinema in 2011 I was torn over whether I wanted to see it or not.  I was going through a nasty breakup and was about to flee the country leaving my lost love behind and dragging my sorry self back to England.  Did I really want to spend an hour a half watching a similar post university emotional train wreck?  I decided against, and hence I’ve only just seen the film now – which I think was probably a good thing as it probably would have upset me a fair bit back in those dark days of recent separation.  Let me tell you if you’ve never been through it – there’s a reason the love sick puppies in this film are rarely without a drink in their hand.

I also held off on watching this at the cinema because I had my suspicions about it as well, it had the potential to be just a bit too saccharine and unbearable.  Did I really want to watch one of those couples (you know the ones) on screen for an hour and a half?  Really?  Was I going to do that to myself?  I had a feeling this film was either going to cut to the quick – absolutely nail all that love sick anguish, or it was going to be a chick flick hatchet job – and I was erring on the side of the latter.

I was wrong, obviously.  And it was great.  The clothes were great, the atmosphere was right, it was beautifully shot; good work Drake Doremus.  Like Crazy is the story of Anna (Felicity Jones) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin).  Anna is the English rose on an exchange year in LA, and Jacob is the handsome young American classmate she falls for.  Perfect honeymoon romance ensues, Anna overstays her student visa, goes home, tries to get back into America, gets deported, nightmare begins.  Lots of backwards and forwards – ing, physically (for Jacob) and mentally (for both), heartbreak, unhappiness and confusion.

There are a lot of things in this film that I found to be very real and raw, and I think this was a big part it’s charm for me – I can relate to these characters.  The improvised dialogue is great, shots taken from outside doorways – as if you are a real spectator – work very well.  But it’s more than that; I know these people.  I know the people who went on exchange to the west coast.  I know people who came on exchange from the west coast.  I know a couple who could have been negatives of Anna and Jacob.  He met his girlfriend at Oxford when she was on an exchange year from New York, perpetual saving for flights began and the pain radiated outwards.  You wouldn’t wish long distance relationships on your worst enemies.  This is just an example of one couple I know, I could give more.  Universities are responsible for this one, freedom to move around as a student is great – until you fall in love and your visa expires.  Then it’s just a ticking time bomb to misery.

So the mechanics of it all looked real to me, all apart on one thing; the money.  That’s the kicker.  My friend and his american eventually had to  (very painfully) call it quits because they just couldn’t afford their relationship, and it was ruining them, emotionally as well as financially.  Anna has a deep well of financial stability behind her, being able to spend the summer in LA in the first place, to have an internship in London, to have a lawyer to smooth over her visa mistake, to be able to offer to fly Jacob out . . . this is beyond the realms of most people I know, and that’s where the film fell down a bit for me.  Jacob (who incidentally cannot draw AT ALL) rents an uber cool MASSIVE loft to run his immediately very successful furniture business from, and the money will come from somewhere to support Anna when she eventually moves in without a  job.  It’s another film about hipster rich kids and their difficult lives (I’m thinking of Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture here).  Anna and Jacob’s situation is hard, but from my perspective, if it had been me in that situation it would have been a whole lot fucking harder because the logistics just would not have been affordable.  Full stop.  (At least on a hugely international scale where long distance flights and visas are concerned, within Europe it would be possible).

On the whole though . . . I liked it a lot.  Relationships change and develop, and so do people – it’s difficult to make things work when the components are so unstable, and that’s before you add an ocean to the mix.  It’s difficult to pin down the complexity of a relationship in a film, but all involved make a surprisingly good job of it here.

Letter to Brezhnev

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Elaine and Peter: love and the iron curtain

So One Hot Summer in St. Petersburg came to an end and I was left sulking somewhat.  There is is always a battle that rages while reading a very good book, on one hand you you want to spend every spare second reading it – and on the other you want to slow things down because you don’t want it to end.  Then eventually it does, and all these lively characters and beautiful places and moments dissolve back into the void and you feel kind of sad and lonely now that they aren’t around anymore.

Post One Hot Summer I was looking for something to fill the void and I remembered Letter to Brezhnev, a nice follow on as it features another affair with a young russian sailor.  I’ll alert you now that there is going to be a SPOLER! in this blog entry as I would like to comment on the end of the film.

Two Soviet sailors, Peter and Sergei, dock in Liverpool and hit the town for the one night they are there.  In a nightclub they meet local working class girls Elaine and Teresa and spend a wild night drinking and dancing before finally heading back to a hotel with the girls.  While Sergei (who speaks no English at all) is busy getting it on with Teresa (who has spent all day stuffing chickens in a factory) Peter and Elaine stay up talking, looking at the stars and falling in love.  They spend the next day together wandering around Liverpool before Sergei has to return to the ship, they confess their love to each other and Sergei asks Elaine to be his wife.  He gives  her a necklace which belonged to his grandfather, promising that they would meet again.  Determined not to let her love disappear into the sunset Elaine finally resolves to write a plea to President Brezhnev (President of the Soviet Union 1964-1982) to allow her to go to Russia and search for Peter.  To the surprise of all Brezhnev replies and invites her to the Soviet Union.

The film opens with a a panoramic shot of a grey city, clearly pre perestroika era and looking decidedly impoverished and communist.  Is it Moscow?  St. Petersburg?  Nope, it’s Thatcher era Liverpool of course.  Plenty of ingrained industrial grime, urban poverty and even a few ‘COAL NOT DOLE’ posters.  Elaine and Theresa are our working heroes (or Elaine would be, but she’s unemployed).  Both of them are looking for an escape from the drudgery of daily life, and while this starts as a Friday night on the town it ends with dreams of Moscow.

There’s a lot to be said here for self imposed working class limitations, the life you would like to have, the life you actually have and the grey area between the two.  It takes a lot of courage for Elaine to remain true to her convictions and remain determined to go to Russia when all are against her – only Teresa is encouraging throughout the fight.  It is difficult if not impossible to defend a place you have never been to and know little about, even more so when it is surrounded by a wall of secrecy and propaganda, and that’s before you rule out the long standing suspicion and animosity from the west.  Saying goodbye at the airport Elaine suggests that Teresa could get away as well, and do whatever she wanted if she put her mind to it – but no – Teresa says that she knows her place, and although she can dream it is life in Liverpool at the chicken factory that will endure.

I’m inclined to wonder how much better Elaine’s life would have been in the Soviet Union in the 1980s.  Better than being working class and unemployed in Liverpool?  Or just different?  Or is different enough?  Poignantly Elaine asks Peter about food shortages and long queues for food in Russia, he says they are told the same thing about Britain.  Her move to the Soviet Union is a leap of blind faith, few go in, or out, no guidebooks, no accurate stats but plenty of propaganda – even love is not a certainty, but it’s enough to get her on the plane.  Of course this is where the films ends, and the lady vanishes behind the iron curtain – never to be seen or heard from again.

Snapshots of the Eternal City

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I’m a long-term fan of Woody Allen and as I missed To Rome With Love at the cinema I’ve been waiting for it to appear on iTunes for an absolute age.  I suspect that Woody Allen must be quite enjoying his latter years filmmaking his way around Europe, spending just enough time in each city to identify the poetry, the romance and the life.  Out of the European films; Vicky, Christina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris and To Rome With Love I think that unfortunately I’m going to say that the latter is my least favourite.  However, that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, I just thought it was a little inconsistent.

To Rome With Love pursues four different stories, and different versions of Rome.  There is the architect who lived there as a student and encounters his younger self in a backstreet, there is the newly married Italian couple who arrive in Rome wide eyed from the country and an Italian business man who one day finds himself to be inexplicably very famous.  Finally, Woody Allen makes an appearance as the retired music producer father of an American girl who has become engaged to an Italian (the father of whom happens to be something of a Virtuoso opera singer – but only in the shower).

I love how the definitive Woody Allen couple appears in every film, just under different names.  Here it is Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and Monica (Ellen Paige) who feel a lot like a rehashed version of Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Manhattan, not that I’m complaining.  You’ll find the same intellectual jibes about Freud and some jokes about The Fountainhead, and it’s still a formula that has me giggling the whole way through.  Monica is pretentious and unbearable the same way that Keaton was in Manhattan, and Jack is besotted anyway, just like Allen.  Needless to say the outcome of the relationship is predictable.  I think this ‘snapshot’ of Rome was probably my favourite of the four.

My least favourite was the sketch about middle class average Joe, Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) who is shocked to discover that he is famous one day.  It is an amusing farce, especially when poor Leopoldo starts to lose his mind when fame vanishes and his adoring public no longer remembers him.  However, it just felt a little bit tired and not that original.

To Rome With Love was good but not fantastic, but I’ll still be eagerly anticipating Woody Allen’s next film.  I think it would be interesting to see London, but unfortunately I think the grey skies and English stiff upper lip probably aren’t conducive to whirlwind summer romance in the same way that Paris, Rome and Barcelona are.  Allen is a master at painting a portrait of a city and it’s inhabitants, but as always nothing can ever comes close to the majesty of Manhattan.  Perhaps it takes more than a few months on location to get to the heart of a city, perhaps you have to live and dream there for years to really understand it, not just the summer.

Trivia Tidbit: To Rome With Love was originally titled The Bop Decameron, before being changed to Nero Fiddled. Woody Allen changed it when he realized that few people understood the title’s loose reference to The Decameron, a medieval collection of novellas.

One for the Wallflowers

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Teen dream: Sam and Charlie

As a high school teenager I would have been prime audience for The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  More often than not I was that quiet kid in the corner with a book, and as I spent my adolescent years in Manchester obviously The Smiths featured heavily in the soundtrack to my teenage angst.

However, after reading the book I was underwhelmed.  I think this was partly because I had heard of the book a long time before I got the chance to read it, and it seems that The Perks of Being a Wallflower has attracted quite a cult following.  It was a good coming of age story.  I identified with Charlie and mostly approved of the books his English teacher gave him to read.  The playlists for Charlie’s mix tapes were probably the best bit.  And that was all.  So the book didn’t live up to expectations and I probably won’t read it again.  For me it falls into the same category as A Catcher in the Rye.  There are a lot of similarities as Charlie acts as a younger sort of modern day Holden Caulfield.  The books deal with a lot of the same themes, but for me neither of them reaches the standard that their cult followers would have you believe.

Bearing all this in mind then, why did I want to see the film?

Curiosity.  While I didn’t love the book, I didn’t hate it either and The Perks of Being a Wallflower is still going to do more for me as a teen movie than something like Mean Girls (am I still that shy teenager with a book after all).  I also wanted to see how Emma Watson performed outside the Harry Potter bubble, and I wasn’t disappointed.

As the film was directed, written and produced by Stephen Chbosky (author of TPBWF) it was faithful to the book.  I think there were some grumblings amongst the cult followers of the book when it was announced it was going to be made into a film, but surely they were reassured when they heard of Chbosky’s involvement.  Despite his involvement, or maybe because of it, the film failed to cast a spell on me.

I think the real star of the show was Ezra Miller as Patrick (he previously blew me away as a psychopathic teenager in We Need to Talk About Kevin).  He was charismatic, funny and brilliant, definitely my favourite character on screen bringing some well needed comic relief from otherwise quite heavy subject matter.  Emma Watson was cool and charming as Sam.  I stopped watching the Harry Potter films after the first few, so I’m comparing her performance to that of her childhood self and it seems heavy handed for me to suggest that she has ‘grown up’.  Instead I’ll say that it was a successful foray into something new, to my (English) ears her American accent didn’t sound too diabolical, and I’ll keep an eye on her in the future.  In any case she’s still a better actor than Daniel Radcliffe who is just enduringly terrible.  I don’t have much to say about Logan Lerman as Charlie, he was suitably quiet and awkward and intense.  I think it is quite difficult to concentrate attention on such a quiet character, and there was a risk of him being eclipsed by more exuberant, eccentric characters (Patrick, Mary Elizabeth) who are a lot more entertaining to watch.

The teenagers in The Perks of Being a Wallflower for the most part deal with pretty normal teenage stuff; highschool, bullying, drugs, sexuality, relationship troubles.  Watching this stuff makes me feel both lethargic and comforted; I know this world, it all looks like familiar territory – and it still makes me feel better to watch this rearranged version of my teenage life at age 24.  However, all of these teens live in beautiful middle class houses, and somehow or other they will all probably make it to college.  Their problems occupy a small space, because ultimately weighing up their backgrounds and stable homes you know that it will all work out in the end.  The uncomfortable aspect to this film then isn’t the bullying or the relationship problems (Charlie’s awkward non-starter relationship with Mary Elizabeth for example) but the creepy undercurrents of domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse and suicide.  The darker side of life in those beautiful middle class houses.  It is the way that Chbosky deals with these issues in particular which is perhaps why the book attracted such a cult following.  He delves into some dark depths where other teen films and books don’t go, and that’s why even though I didn’t fall in love with The Perks of Being a Wallflower I would still recommend it to others like me who are still troubled teens at heart.

Victims of Circumstance

Forbidden apples: Atafeh and Shireen

Circumstance (2011) is the tale of two female friends in Iran and the development of their relationship.  Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) is the orphaned daughter of two radical professors and Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) is the daughter of a wealthy family.

The two girls are shown doing normal teenage stuff, dressing up, singing, experimenting, sneaking out to clubs and generally getting up to no good.  The difference here of course is that they are living in modern day Tehran and their actions are likely to hold very heavy consequences if they are caught.  The feeling of the oppression is like a think blanket over the whole film, to the extent that you feel nervous watching them doing innocent things (by western standards) like knocking back the shots or discussing Sex and the City. 

Atafeh’s brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) is a recovered drug addict who has just returned to the family and is affected by a bout of newfound piety that disturbs the rest of the family.  Atafeh is wary of her brother and his desire to conform to the restrictions of Iranian society, and her caution is entirely justified.  Mehran is a slippery character, leering around corners, spying on the girls and eventually setting up hidden CCTV cameras in the family home.  In a way Mehran represents all of the oppressive features of Iran that Atafeh rails against, and this is not a sympathetic portrayal.

The relationship between the two girls escalates quickly from over friendly touching and joking around to a full blown sexual affair.  Shireen goes to the beach with Atafeh’s family and the girls find their first opportunity to reveal their feelings and sleep together.  This is risqué stuff for a film set in Iran, so it should be no surprise that the film is banned and American director Maryam Keshavarz is no longer allowed to enter the country.

At times I am not sure how accurate the film is in its portrayal of Iran.  While still away at the very early one morning Shireen and Atafeh both strip down to their underwear to go swimming in sea.  The day before both girls were seen to be hot an irritated in headscarves and long clothes, while a lot of men wonder around in the background comfortably dressed in swimming trunks.  This is an infuriating double standard to be sure, but I find it unlikely that the girls would do something so fatally dangerous the next day.  Iran does not strike me as the sort of place where it is ever safe to act on impulse, especially if you are a girl.  I also thought that the girls would have to cover their heads a lot more closely, whereas apart from the scenes shot at school they seem to get away with quite loose headscarves in public.

When the girls get taken into custody by the morality police for going to an underground nightclub the director mercifully does not go into great detail.  I’ve heard whisperings about women being whipped and subjected to other abuse, and Atafeh is physically examined – but the horror of custody is about as terrible as it needs to be in this film, the hints are enough.  I did worry at various points that the film might be heading towards some kind of violent end, but luckily it didn’t come to that.

Following the shame of being arrested Mehran suggests to Shireen that he has the power to wipe her record if she wishes.  At home her uncle tells her that she must get married in order to overcome the shame of her actions.  Reluctantly she enters into an engagement at the disgust of Atafeh, and the relationship between the girls quickly begins to unravel.

As there is of course no chance that this film could have been produced in Iran, instead it was shot in Lebanon.  Even this required an elaborate web of lies about the content of film to the extent that a fake script was sent to the authorities.  The film was made in a fairly oppressive environment and this tension and anxiety seeps into everyone’s performance, creating an authentic atmosphere for the film, though no doubt stressful for all involved.  The audience should welcome this, as we ultimately end up with a sensitive portrayal of life in modern Iran.  The position Shireen and Atafeh end up in is frustrating; their choices are limited and incredibly difficult.

I can’t watch a film about Iran without considering British and Iranian relations, currently at an all time low.  In 2011 the Iranian government voted to expel the British Ambassador and the British Embassy in Tehran was subsequently set on fire following a demonstration.  In retaliation the British government decided that it was no longer appropriate for Iran to retain an embassy in London.  The Foreign Office advises against all travel to Iran, even for those holding dual nationality.

persepolis1

Rebellious youth: Persepolis

Circumstance is not my first brush with Iranian film, a few years ago I saw Persepolis (technically a French film, though dealing exclusively with Iran) by Marjane Satrapi.  Persepolis is the brilliantly animated story of Satrapi’s childhood and escape from Iran and offers a fascinating perspective on the country.  This film made me more aware of British-Iranian relations, most notably British meddling over oil and the scandal of Britain selling weapons to both sides during the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s.  Rebuilding a relationship at this time looks to be a long way off.

Tiny Worlds

Tiny Furniture is Lena Dunham’s first feature length film. Based on her own life crisis after college, Tiny Furniture was written in just four days, and then filmed in just one month in 2009. Lena Dunham won Best First Screenplay at the 2010 Independent Spirit Awards.

Tiny Furniture follows the life of recent graduate Aura (Lena Dunham). Returning home to live with her mother and sister in New York after four years of college in Ohio, Aura is at a loss at what to do next. She falls in with her childhood friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirke) and gets a job as a hostess at a local restaurant. When her artist mother (Dunham’s real life mother Laurie Simmons) and sister Nadine (real life sister Grace Dunham) go away for a week Aura invites a lodger to stay. Filmmaker Jed (Alex Karpovsky) consequently spends a parasitic week in Aura’s flat drinking wine, bed hopping and passing wry comments on her actions. The mother and sister come back, Aura has an argument with her mother, the sister has a party, the lodger moves out. Aura decides that actually she doesn’t really want to get her own flat in New York with college friend Frankie as she had vaguely planned.

It’s a struggle to summarise the plot of this film because much like post college life these days there isn’t a whole lot of structure. By the end of the film nothing is really resolved, Aura still does not have a plan, she is still unhappy, and nothing of consequence has changed. But that’s ok, sort of, because life is like that. Of course in real life Lena Denham got out of her rut by writing Tiny Furniture and becoming a widely praised screenwriter. She is now the executive producer of her own TV series, Girls, in which she is also an actress along with many of her friends from Tiny Furniture.

I have mixed feelings on Tiny Furniture. On one hand I liked it because I was able to identify with Aura and the graduate fog she has drifted into. She doesn’t know what to do, or what she wants, or who she is supposed to be. I can appreciate that, it’s a horrible time, you’re back home with your parent(s) and life is going nowhere. Unfortunately my sympathy ends there because Aura’s home is a TriBeCa artists loft with floor to ceiling bookshelves, cupboards full of red wine and apparently not a bed frame to be seen (Laurie Simmons’s real life flat). Poor Aura, it really must be a hard life. Having said this, my favourite person in the film is easily Aura’s self-absorbed childhood friend Charlotte. Living in her own unlikely enormous New York flat with racks full of beautiful clothes and no discernable source of income Charlotte is young, rich, beautiful, entitled. Within about ten seconds of appearing on screen I had decided I absolutely hated her, but my feelings gradually melted as she was revealed to be lonely and witty and generally a good influence on Aura’s wellbeing.

Tiny Furniture was ok. If you’re a recent graduate going through a post college crisis like me (especially an arts graduate) you’re probably going to look on it favourably. For most arts graduates it looks like an idealised world, there’s the flat you want, and the books you want and the cool clothes you want. But the point is that this all belongs to Aura’s mother, not Aura. I suppose that for children brought into very privileged worlds the battle is to build your own life, establish your own income, and your own identity away from that of your very successful parents. No matter what strata of society you have to return to after graduation the same battle is still there, the same apathy, and the same struggle to make sense of it all. I’m inclined to think the Independent Spirit Awards would be less interested on my screenplay about graduate ennui in Manchester though.

Electrick Children

Kids on the edge: Clyde and Rachel

The first feature length film to be directed and written by Rebecca Thomas, Electrick Children is an odd creature. In parts sad, funny, surreal, a nostalgia for an innocent age it is an intimate look into the lives of several teenagers going through some hard times. Rachel (the radiant Julie Garner) is a fifteen year old living in a Mormon community. She finds a blue cassette tape in the cellar and is deeply affected by the song she hears (a cover version of ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ by Blondie). Her brother finds her in the cellar and there is an altercation where he attempts to take the tape away from her. It is the middle of the night and the pair are caught wrestling on the basement floor by their mother; nothing happens, but it doesn’t look good, especially when Rachel discovers she is pregnant several months later. Suspicion falls on the brother ‘Mr. Will’ (Liam Aiken) and he is told he must leave the community. An immediate marriage is arranged for Rachel, who insists that she is pregnant by immaculate conception and has not ‘sinned’. Rachel is convinced that the blue tape is somehow responsible for her pregnancy, and that the man singing on the tape must be the father. She decides to run away rather than submit to an arranged marriage, and steals the family truck to drive to the nearest city where she plans to start her search for the singer on the tape. Unbeknown to Rachel, Mr. Will had been hiding in the back of the truck and had been brought along for the ride.

Once in the city she meets Clyde (Rory Culkin) outside a club and is intrigued by his friends who are in a band. Thinking that the guitarist might be the father of her child she convinces Clyde to allow her to stay with him. Mr.Will attempts to intervene but ultimately ends up going along as well. Clyde and his friends are a dissolute bunch of skaters and musicians whose behavior begins to have an influence on Mr. Will, though not so much on Rachel. Julie Garner’s performance is fantastic, Rachel is naive and lovely without ever being overbearing or sickly, she manages to capture Rachel’s humble and gentle nature perfectly. Julie Garner was also in The Perks of a Being a Wallflower, which I haven’t seen yet, and I would be interested to see how the performances compare. She certainly has a fresh-faced innocence here that is perfect for coming of age movies; I imagine she probably would have been quite good in Juno, or something like that. She’s definitely one to watch.

Liam Aiken delivers an excellent performance as Mr.Will, who comes across as an awkward and perhaps prickly young boy. He is far less sympathetic than Clyde, perhaps because he is younger, and it is amusing how he is reluctantly swayed by the behaviour of others. Rory Culkin offers a sensitive portrayal of Clyde, who is lonely and seems to be cut adrift in the world. After a falling out with his parents he lives alone in a small flat and gradually begins to build a relationship with Rachel. The relationship between Clyde and Rachel was what really hooked me on this film. They are both vulnerable, in bad situations and both very young. There is no one to guide them, and they must do their best to help each other. Their intimate conversations late at night, especially one where Clyde says he will be Rachel’s ‘husband’ if she can’t find the father is touching. You begin to see the way they care for each other in every small action. Often without dialogue it is possible to work out the thought process the characters are going through.

As already discussed with Sofia Cuppola’s films, I like intimate portraits – and maybe there’s something voyeuristic about watching what people do when alone but there was plenty of that sort of thing in this film, and I think that’s why I enjoyed it. To watch Clyde chain smoking in his room, or see Rachel driving to somewhere she has never been shows vulnerability. It’s sort of sad to watch them suffer in private moments, but makes me feel better as well – as if I have formed solidarity with the characters and then I am happy when things start to get better for them.

Rebecca Thomas is Mormon, so I was intrigued as to how she would portray this community on screen. Although she did not grow up in a fundamentalist community like the one shown in the film she had observed it while visiting her grandparents in Utah. Some things do seem to be very negative; arranging a marriage for a fifteen year old girl is highly dubious, as is the way Mr.Will is cast from the community for an action that both he and Rachel deny vehemently. For a community that preaches a doctrine of forgiveness, these are not very forgiving actions, and merely seem to cover up one mistake with another. However, at the beginning of the film Rachel appears to be very happy in her community, and there is no reason to think this would have changed if she had not come up against a difficult decision. In the outside world God continues to have an influence in her life, and she continues to pray and believe that her pregnancy is a miracle and the will of God. I think Rebecca Thomas offers no particular judgment; she presents the Mormon community respectfully, as she has seen it, and leaves us to make our own decision.

Electrick Children does have its strange points. When I read the synopsis about a girl who supposedly gets pregnant from a song I was highly skeptical. The film offers no kind of explanation for this other than immaculate conception. This is surreal, and I suppose I was expecting traces of a concealed relationship, sexual abuse or rape but the film just doesn’t offer any hint of an explanation at all. Apart from the tape. Although the film could easily have been a lot darker, Rebecca Thomas instead decides to keep it all quite innocent which does feel a little odd at times.  Having said all this the film is beautifully shot, it has a dreamy ethereal quality, and plot foibles aside I knew that I would enjoy it as soon as I saw the trailer.