The Diary of a Teenage Girl (US, 2015)

Empowering the twisted sister

FilmFour, in the UK, are to be congratulated for putting on a season of female-directed films to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of (limited) votes for women. Marielle Heller directed and adapted Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel; she’d previously adapted it for stage and appeared in the titular role played in the film by British actor, Bel Powley.

This is an excellent test case study to investigate what a female perspective can bring because the narrative shows a 15-year-old seducing her mum’s boyfriend; in the wrong hands this would not get beyond ‘creepy’. Whilst there’s plenty of female nudity it is motivated by the narrative and Minnie’s issues with her body; the female direction means it doesn’t feel exploitative. (This is not to say that a female director cannot make a misogynist film or necessarily has to deal with ‘female’ issues). However, by ensuring the film is Minnie’s narrative, she gives us a commentary on her feeling via tape recordings and in dialogue with animated characters who appear from her imagination, we can feel confident that this is a female perspective.

Although set over 40 years ago in 1976, the issues of female anxiety about being validated only through being attractive haven’t changed. Heller captures the post-hippy, pre punk ambience very well reminding us it was a time of potential revolution. There had seemed to be a genuine possibility of change for the better in the post-Vietnam era. Reagan’s election at the end of the decade nailed that particular coffin.

Kristin Wiig plays Minnie’s mixed-up mother: she tells her daughter to get a boyfriend and then states that’s not a ‘feminist thing to say’. The portrayal of her is quite reactionary in that she is something of a hypocritical wastrel: the ‘hippies as hypocrites’ trope, most notoriously seen in Forrest Gump (1994), has some mileage but too often is used simply to dis counter culture. However, I guess the novel is autobiographical and Phoebe’s mum was just like that.

Satisfyingly Minnie becomes increasingly empowered through her experiences whilst the boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård) is shown for what he is. Gratifyingly Heller hasn’t had to wait too long for her second feature: Can You Ever Forgive Me?, starring Melissa McCarthy, is due later this year.

Kiri (UK, 2018)

Home sweet home?

This Jack Thorne scripted four-parter (Rachel De-Lahay co-scripted one episode) touches a number of bases and bravely ends unhappily. Sarah Lancashire is her usual mesmerising self as a social worker who makes a human error with fatal consequences; the cast is uniformly strong, especially Lia Williams and Finn Bennett as mum and son in a family torn apart by Kiri’s murder. In addition to how the press cover social workers, which tends only to happen when it goes wrong and then they sit on a high horse and condemn, race is key as Kiri is black and her estranged father, an ex-drug dealer, is unsurprisingly a key suspect.

Of course not all is what it seems which could be a motto for middle class values and Thorne steers the focus toward the collapsing bourgeois family. The final scenes, where the son Si is taken to a private boarding school, show the true corruption at the heart of the narrative. The entitlement of the upper middle classes poisons public discourse (in the UK) in the press and politics; the ridiculous smear campaign against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn this last week is the latest example. Corbyn’s politics do present a challenge to the status quo and those in power, both the press owners and conservative (of all parties) politicians, will do everything they can to hang on to it at the expense of everyone else.

Thorne, and director Euros Lynn, present the press as an undifferentiated pack that chase its prey for a story and not because they are interested in the truth. In a powerful scene Kiri’s foster mother (Williams) walks into their centre and gives them all photographs of the young girl reminding them of humanity. A powerful series.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (US-France, 1992)

Happy families

I was lucky enough to receive the belated season three of Twin Peaks as a gift so embarked on re-watching series one; I never saw series two when it came out. Series one remains a milestone television series with its mix of the uncanny and humour, much of it derived from the genre mash-up of film noir and soap opera. Season two was more wayward, I found the ‘arch villain’ Windom Earl unconvincing though whether that’s due to Kenneth Welsh’s performance is uncertain. The bizarre Lynch-directed final episode almost redeemed it.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was Lynch’s response to the prematurely-ended, due to low ratings, series (on episode 29, including both series one and two, and a pilot); Lynch apparently had shown little interest in the programme in its second season even though he appeared in a few episodes. As far as he was concerned as soon as the killer of Laura Palmer was revealed, which the television company insisted on, the programme lost its raison d’etre. When Lynch directed he ignored the script, probably because it was trying to explain what was going on. Fire Walk With Me was a prequel to the first series and focused on Laura Palmer whose corpse, in the pilot, stimulates the investigation in the small town. Apparently those who were fans of the series found the film disappointing; when I saw it at the time I was ‘blown away’ by the portrayal of abuse and thought the film was at least as good as Blue Velvet (1986). 25 years later its power remains and I was particularly taken by Sheryl Lee’s performance as Laura; she superbly conveys the girl’s resignation to her fate even as she rails against the forces that have exploited her. It remains uncomfortable viewing.

Given Lynch is in love with surrealism, we can see the first 30 bonkers minutes of the film almost as a short to accompany the feature; unless I’m missing something…

I’ll now embark on the 19 episodes of series three that apparently take Fire Walk With Me as their starting point. I’m enthused enough, at the moment, to then revisit all Lynch’s films for they were all (I haven’t seen The Straight Story, 1999) designed to get us thinking.

A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica, Chile-Germany-Spain-US, 2017)

Super hero

I saw this Berlin Festival winner (best screenplay) at a preview and managed to avoid knowing anything about the film, apart from it was directed by Sebastián Lelio who’d made Gloria, which was enough recommendation for me. This proved a boon given the film’s subject matter, which I won’t give away.

A Fantastic Woman is a brilliant melodrama and Lelio isn’t afraid to go way off realism; in one sequence the protagonist Marina (Daniela Vega) is walking down a street tracked by the camera. The wind gets up blowing detritus into her face. It gets stronger and, at the end of the scene, she comes to a dead stop leaning almost 45-degrees into the wind. This is symbolic of the difficulties n Marina’s life but, like Gloria, she continues to battle.

In a film about identity it is no surprise that mirrors are seen throughout the film including, near the end, in one telling shot that questions how biology shapes who we are. In another bravura scene, workmen carrying an enormous reflective surface stop in the street and Marina is shown in the wobbling mirror: another great visual metaphor about body image.

It’s a cracking film.

Phantom Thread (US, 2017)

Please let it end

I’m happy to admit I don’t get P.T. Anderson: Phantom Thread is meritorious tripe . I think it may be the third shot of the film when the klaxon sounded that I may be wasting two hours of my life: the ever-intrusive music swells as if for a revelation, the camera pans up to show a spiral staircase where the women workers of the fashion house ascend… That’s it. I had similar problems with There Will Be Blood; by the time I worked out what the film was trying to say I didn’t care and wasn’t interested in what it was saying anyway. In fact what I said about Anderson’s The Master is relevant to Phantom Thread:

‘What is the point of The Master? Its narrative is suitably elliptical for a ‘arty’ house film; it lacks the clear drive that’s bespoke Hollywood. It features lauded performances of the sort that Oscar voters like. It’s beautifully  shot and superbly set designed with some striking  compositions …  The music, both ‘found’ and scored (by Jonny Greenwood) is terrific… What’s the film’s point?’

I only went to see Phantom Thread for Daniel Day Lewis but when his character sees the next ‘love of his life’, Alma, and she seems to fall for a man twice her age immediately my doubts about the film were doubled. Anderson is a tasteful old-fashioned filmmaker but such patriarchal pap doesn’t stand watching in, what I hope is, our #MeToo era. It’s not simply that Lewis’ character is abusive, but the idea that young women readily desire old men is long past its sell-by date.

The milieux  of ‘high fashion’ was never one that was going to interest me so I was prejudiced against the film which is beautifully shot by Anderson himself. By the end (halfway actually) I was watching in a detached way that is rarely useful in film watching and so could observe how Anderson used close-ups, and more swelling music, to nail a devastating point about Lewis’ character. BUT IT WASN’T INTERESTING! I’ll shut up now…

Except I’m not sure why the music was so high in the mix. I loved Jonny Greenwood’s score for The Master and his old fashioned scoring for Phantom Thread is in keeping with Anderson’s aesthetic but it sometimes seemed to flood the mise en scene; this Pitchfork review is enlightening.



No Love for Johnnie (UK, 1961)

Unsentimental too

I knew the title but little else when I spied this on Talking Pictures channel and what a discovery it proved to be. Peter Finch plays a careerist Labour politician whose lack of success in government, and disastrous personal life, sets the scene for an unsentimental portrayal of a middle aged man in crisis. I expected the film to be sympathetic to him and feared the worse when he starts an affair, after his wife has left him, with a woman half his age. However, the film went against my expectation and the female characters are portrayed as stronger than he is.

As Roy Stafford outlines, the film doesn’t quite belong to the ‘new wave’ cinema of the time though there are ‘obligatory’ shots of ‘it’s grim up north’ – Halifax standing in for a generic northern town. Because the focus is on Parliamentary politics, and it’s obviously in the know as it’s based on a novel by Labour MP Wilfred Fienburgh, its metropolitan milieux takes it away from the working class world that reinvigorated late ’50s-early ’60s British cinema. Although the costumes of the characters, particularly the women, seem to belong to the ’50s, and the music they bop to is jazz, the mores of the time are more in keeping with the nascent ‘sexual revolution’. The uncredited Oliver Reed plays a drunk at a party and, in retrospect, gives the film a forward-looking feel. There’s no sense that the ingénue Mary (Pauline West) should be censored for sex outside marriage and Billie Whitelaw portrays the neighbour, who holds a flame for Johnnie, as a strong woman; though the scene were he gets violent toward her, with her forgiving response, sits uneasily today.

It was produced by Betty Box, one of the few women of influence in the industry at the time, and she’d made – along with director Ralph Thomas – the successful ‘Doctor’ series, starring Dirk Bogarde. She had a prolific career running from the 1940s to the mid-’70s. It’s difficult enough for women to succeed today so what a person she must have been.

Son of Saul (Saul fia, Hungary, 2015)

Harrowing testimony

I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and found the experience disturbing though not just because of what the Nazis did there. The place was so rammed with tourists, listening to commentary on their headphones, being hurried along to the next exhibition, that I find myself entirely distanced from the place, surely the opposite of the desired effect. The queue for tickets were cooled by a light mist of water that I couldn’t help thinking looked like gas and the only photograph I could bring myself to take was the queue to get into the gas chambers. We must never forget the depths of depravity that humans are capable of but I don’t think the way the camps are run is the way to remember.

Far better are films like Son of Saul that lay out inhumanity and trauma; other films that are effective include The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher , Austria-Germany, 2007), particularly the ending, and the beginning of Andrzej Wadja’s Landscape After Battle (Krajobraz po bitwie, Poland, 1970). Saul is Nemes László’s debut feature and he daringly uses an extremely shallow depth of field, from the protagonist’s point of view, throughout. I’m not sure I’d’ve coped with the disorientating effect on the big screen (though as I watched it on my iPad whilst suffering from ‘flu I can’t be sure of my reaction), as my eyes insisted occasionally on trying to get more of the image into focus. However, as a technique for emphasising Saul’s single-minded determination to lay his son’s body to rest, played with frightening intensity by film debutant Röhrig Géza, it works brilliantly. It’s also a tour de force of choreography as the long takes require a large cast to be on their marks as Saul moves through the camp.

For years I felt that humanity had put the depravities of the Nazis behind us; how naïve. Son of Saul is a harrowing testament of the Holocaust and therefore a landmark film.

The Post (UK-US, 2017)

The woman in front of the man

The Post, with the award-baiting combination of Hanks-Spielberg-Streep, tells a tale from 1971 that is vital now. Spielberg reportedly ‘rushed’ the production because of the film’s topicality: who will hold governments to account, the role of the fourth estate, if newspapers don’t?

The Pentagon Papers were academic investigations into the Vietnam War commissioned by the Secretary of State for Defence, Robert McNamara, which found that the war was unwinnable. This conclusion was not shared with the American public and hundreds of thousands of people died because the war continued. McNamara, by the way, was the subject of the Errol Morris’ brilliant The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (US, 2003). It wasn’t until the New York Times scoop, they were leaked by Daniel Ellsburg, that the Papers were revealed.

The Post, however, focuses on the Washington Post which also ran the story, having received the Papers after the Times, when the Nixon administration took out an injunction to prevent further publication; this was the first time in US history that the government had gagged a newspaper. I’m not sure why the focus is on the Post though it has a good story to tell; the leader of the Times’ legal team, James C. Goodale, claims the film is good but ‘bad history’. I’ve no reason to disbelieve him.

However, it is as a film about now that The Post excels. Obviously the relationship between news reporting and government, particularly in America where Trump shouts ‘fake news’ at anything he doesn’t agree with, is particularly contentious. The newspaper industry has been declining for nearly 50 years but the rise of Google and Facebook, that suck up advertising, has destroyed the business model for the ‘quality press’ that relied on delivering valuable audiences to advertisers. The film shows the vital role the press has and so raises fears about the future as newspapers’ influence declines. In the UK, it seems that the press have retreated from their role as the ‘fourth estate’ (the other three are government, the courts and the church), which is meant to hold those in power to account, and become even more partial in terms of their political orientation. The Daily Telegraph recently led with the ridiculous claim from defence secretary Gavin Williamson that the Russians can kill thousands of people by interfering with the power supply. Giving credence to Williamson’s attempt to distract from a story that embarrassed him suggests their news standards are wallowing in the gutter.

The other topical aspect of the film is the role of women in the 1970s. The Post’s owner, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), constantly finds herself in rooms full of male executives who don’t take her seriously. She is shown to rise to the occasion and, in a great shot, when she leaves the Supreme Court, a line of adoring young women watch her. She makes a stand publishing the Papers even though it could have caused problems with the Stock Exchange floatation happening at the time. The film suggests this is to protect the newspaper but Goodale says it was to pay stockholders’ estate taxes. To further tarnish her apparent heroism, she became a print union buster later in the decade – see here.

When the paper finally goes to press, Spielberg ensures we see the whole hot metal process, an incredible technological effort required to produce newspapers in those ‘good old days’. Except, of course, they weren’t really good it’s just that things are worse now.


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (UK-US, 2017)

Several levels of desperation

Three Billboards is one of the glut of ‘awards’ movies that fill the cinemas in the early months of the year to take advantage of the publicity garnered by the Oscars and BAFTAs. The idea that these are the best films of the year, often middle brow and never blockbusters, shows the one-eyed perspective of cultural commentators as they are usually all English language films. Pity the rest of the world who can’t hope to compete with Anglo Saxon culture!

Three Billboards is, however, good in the sense I enjoyed it and there were moments that were absolutely riveting. The performances are excellent, Martin McDonagh’s direction and script are great. With one proviso, which we’ll come to, it probably is one of the best American films produced last year.

Frances McDormand plays Mildred who places contentious statements on billboards in order to get justice for her murdered daughter. Police chief (Woody Harrelson) is the focus of her ire. One of his deputies, Sam Rockwell, is a racist and not fit to wear an officer’s uniform. The set-up is clear but McDonagh then sets about challenging our preconceptions, much derived from generic expectations, and offers depth to the characterisation. He also, typically of melodrama, over-exaggerates to the extent that Rockwell’s character is barely believable.

So what’s the problem with the film? SPOILERS AHEAD! Rockwell’s Dixon, despite being extremely racist, is redeemed when he helps Mildred. I thought the catalyst for this was weak, a letter from the now deceased police chief, but nevertheless thought it worked in the melodramatic framework. However, as Zeba Blay says in Huffington Post:

‘[The] disconnect between (mostly white) viewers who see Dixon’s having tortured a black man as a character quirk, a shorthand for anger and sadness, and (black) viewers like Denby, who can’t let go of this character quirk in order to root for the character, lies at the center of what makes the award-season success of “Three Billboards” so fascinating.

For a black audience Rockwell’s racism is far less likely to be forgiven when the character redeems himself because using racism as a signifier of weakness downplays its power. I think this is a fair comment and McDonagh’s defence weak:

“That ambiguity is exactly what I was going for in it. So it’s not a surprise, I think, and it’s nothing I can’t happily defend at any stage. I think it’s a really good film, and I think often the backlash is kind of a knee-jerk reaction maybe. And I think certainly in time — not right now, in time — the heart of the film will definitely be seen as something that’s deserving to be recognized.” (also in HuffPo article)

To describe a black person’s reaction to Dixon as ‘knee-jerk’ suggests McDonagh doesn’t understand how racism affects black people as does his self-congratulary contention that ‘the movie says “an awful lot” about race and policing’  I think it says more about white treatment of race than race itself.

However, this is not a reason not to see the film, which I think is very fine but with the qualification that it’s racial politics are, at the very least, contentious.