My week in film: Melissa McCarthy twice plus Tangerine

Pretty soon the viewing habits of this writer will all feature the sight of a Christmas tree, tinsel, presents and/or snow, but for the last week before the festive holidays commence proper, there’s been time to catch some of the year’s lauded comedies and acclaimed dramas. screen20shot202015-06-2420at203-05-5420pmSean Baker’s Tangerine has been widely praised and discussed since its world premiere at Sundance in January. Shot using an iPhone 5 in West Hollywood, the film follows trans sex workers Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) around LA over the course of one day – Christmas Eve – while Sin-Dee attempts to confront her boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) for cheating on her with a cis-gendered woman. The film is remarkably cinematic, due to Baker and co-cinematographer Radium Cheung’s discovery of an anamorphic adapter for the iPhone that allowed them to shoot in scope. Assumptions about a film shot with a phone are quickly dispelled as wide roof-top shots and street scenes open up the film’s setting and capture the character’s sprawling environment.

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Mya Taylor as Alexandra and Kiki Rodriguez as Sin-Dee

Baker developed the story from his friendship with Mya, and there’s an authentic energy to the way Alexandra and Sin-Dee interact, the latter’s fast paced, lisp inflected dialogue conveying an impatience that contrasts with her cohort’s ‘no drama’ principles. Tangerine shows the toughness of its character’s lives, the dangers inherent in getting into a strangers car with no guarantee that they won’t turn violent. Alongside this vulnerability, Baker’s film demonstrates how his character’s care and look after each other, and relate through humour, the result is a film that’s as open to being serious as is to being silly and heartfelt. Melissa McCarthy in SpyOther films viewed this week include two starring Melissa McCarthy, one a re-watch of Bridesmaids, and another Paul Feig helmed comedy, Spy, which also stars Miranda Hart and Jude Law. McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a desk-based CIA agent usually guiding Law’s active spy Bradley Fine through his covert operations via an ear piece. When disaster strikes, Susan offers to go into the field herself, assuming her lack of experience will make her less of a target for the agencies enemies. McCarthy is reliably hilarious, and there’s some sharp observations of workplace sexism in the way her character is frequently assigned aliases that reinforce stereotypes about a person of Susan’s size, age and gender. Jason Statham, is given ample opportunity to ape his Transporter-like persona, throwing out boastful lines attesting to his strength and indestructability with an almost insatiable frequency. That McCarthy is very a dramatic, comedic and action star here is immensely enjoyable, even if spy spoofs bring with them their own clichés.

Coming soon (or maybe after a festive lull), Cinematic Investigations on Star Wars, Christmas movies and a full review of 2015 highlights. For those interested in my official top ten of 2015, check out words in praise of Carol – CineVue’s film of the year plus links at the bottom of the page to my LetterBoxd list.

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My week in film: Carol, Sunset Song and more…

As the red curtains are soon to close on 2015, the impetus to catch up on films I’ve missed has set in. It’s also the time for ‘Best of’ lists and for my part I’ve already contributed to one – in early November I was asked to select my ‘preferred five films’ of 2015 for Sight & Sound magazine’s annual poll. Since then I’ve seen more that I would have included, but luckily the CineVue top ten will be revealed later this month, so those missed in S&S will get their chance. Of those in Sight & Sound’s top ten, I’ve seen eight (though only if you count joint eleventh position) but not their number one film, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin and only one is in my top five, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows. You can read my full list and rationale behind my selection here.

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Rooney Mara as Therese and Cate Blanchett as Carol

At the cinema meanwhile, there’s also been plenty to see. Todd Hayne’s Carol, starring Cate Blanchett in the eponymous role and Rooney Mara as shop clerk Therese, who fall in love in 1950’s New York, is perhaps one of the most accomplished and affecting works of cinema I’ve ever seen. Adapted by Phyllis Nagy from the 1953 novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith and shot on Super 16mm, Haynes has created a film so utterly glorious it’s hard to know where to begin praising it. Instead I’ll attempt to recall those moments that moved me so acutely. Both performances by Mara and Blanchett are fantastic. Blanchett demonstrates that Carol is first of all a mother, dedicated to her daughter Rindy (Sadie and Kk Heim) and possessed of a will strong enough to know that abandoning her identity would be more damaging than partial custody of Rindy. At the same time, her chemistry with Mara is palpable, showing their instant attraction and developing tenderness for one another.

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Rooney Mara

Mara as Therese reveals the agony – frequently internalised – of having no name for what she’s feeling, but becoming aware that her lack of investment in her heteronormative life might have an explanation that she can share with someone else. Carol shifts its narrative focus between Therese and Carol, demonstrating how they both experience a questioning of their identity, struggling with, by turns, the reconciliation of being a mother, but not a wife, or where one’s allies and friends might really lie. As with Far From Heaven (2002) Haynes recreates the 1950s’ period with a cinematic nostalgia that nods to the work of Douglas Sirk and the paintings of Edward Hopper and has even been open about stealing the opening scene’s set up from David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), where a hand on a shoulder is the only expression of affection permissible in public. The film’s identity theme is also expressed in the use of reflections, as the characters gaze into mirrors, or are seen through rain-soaked glass, or a camera’s lens. Here, love is about how one identifies not only with one’s lover, but with the image of oneself.

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Agyness Deyn as Chris in Sunset Song

Also at the cinema, I rushed to see Terence Davies long-gestating adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel, Sunset Song. Set in the years just before WWI, the film tells the story of Chris (Agyness Deyn), a young woman who lives with her family on their farm in rural Aberdeenshire. Throughout Sunset Song, Chris’s coming to terms with her own autonomy, her own desires and the responsibilities of motherhood allow Deyn the opportunity for a spirited and sensitive performance. Chris’s changes as a woman are compared to the mutability of the seasons, and cinematographer Michael McDonough’s choice of 65mm for the exterior scenes celebrate the drama and beauty of the landscape. Much like Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), an overbearing father is again a central element, yet the revelatory use of nature, opens up Sunset Song to a make it more than a set of explored themes for the director.

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Elizabeth Moss as Ashley in Listen Up Philip

Other films viewed in an effort to ‘catch up’ include Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, in which a luminous Juliette Binoche plays an actor facing up to aging, role reversal and the ‘truths’ of performance alongside a fantastic Kristen Stewart. A Pigeon Sat on a Bench Reflecting on Existence was the latest from Roy Andersson this year, which again follows Songs From the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007), in depicting the inherent tragi-comedy of modern life. I also checked out Listen Up Philip by Alex Ross Perry, a comedy about a total bastard novelist ‘struggling’ with success. The film says very little of any originality about the torment of creativity, but it does take an interesting route by spending almost as much time with Philip’s (Jason Schwartzman) ex, Ashley (Elizabeth Moss), and her development into a single person again contains some very thoughtful moments, not to mention a stunning performance by Moss

My week in film: shorts aplenty in Leeds and Bratislava

Mid November involved my visiting two international film festivals, Leeds and Bratislava, to sit on their short film juries. Two days in Leeds, thirty four films over six programmes in one screen at the Everyman cinema, resulted in one minor headache (probably from sitting too close to the screen), four satisfying meals, some very well crafted works and the pleasure of the company of fellow jurors Muriel d’Ansembourg and Jasper Sharp.

I’d never been to Leeds before and I still feel as though I haven’t, due to the tight schedule of screenings partially dictated by my departure back to Edinburgh in time for the next festival. Nevertheless, spending two days watching short films created with energy, passion and skill is a fine way to spend one’s time. From what I did see of Leeds and the impact of the festival (it runs for two whole weeks) on the city, it appears well attended and well loved. I was sad not to catch the local talent represented by the Yorkshire Short Film Competition. Tim_Guan-1024x573Of the films in consideration, we selected Drama directed by Guan Tian (pictured above) as the winner of the Louis Le Prince International Short Film Competition. Drama frames its action from the back seat of a car, where a mostly unseen couple halt their coitus when they realise they have no condoms. Seeing a woman across the street whom they assume is a sex worker, they decide she should be able to provide them with the missing contraception, and in observing her relate their interpretation of her interactions. The film impressed us for its layering of translations and clever use of off-screen space. First there’s the assumptions made about an unknown woman, then the translation of dialogue into subtitles for a non-Chinese speaking audience, and finally, like Rear Window, a play of what can and cannot be seen from the couple’s vantage point. In eleven minutes, Drama absolutely involved us in this couple’s intimate investment in another couple’s conflict, moving through frustration, fear, laugher and relief. Elsewhere in Leeds’ line up, The Jacket by Patrick Vollrath (to which we gave a special mention), Turtle (Jordan Scheile) and Volta (Stella Kyriakopoulos) were all very well executed pieces on – respectively – themes of masculinity, class and motherhood.

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Washingtonia, Konstantina Kotzamani, Greece, 2014

Onward to Slovakia and a far more relaxed schedule awaited me. Alongside jurors Doris Bauer (programmer of Vienna Independent Shorts) and Eva Križková (Editor in Chief of Kinečko), I was tasked with considering twelve short films for the Prize for Best Short Film, and in a selection that included Aura Satz’s Chromatic Aberration and another by Patrick Vollrath – the Cannes selected Everything Will Be Okay, it’s safe to say each film had its own elements of originality and technical achievement. Ultimately we chose Konstantina Kotzamani’s Washingtonia, for the way it combined an idiosyncratic portrait of a mother and son, with musings on the nature of relationships and the natural world, or as we put it to the festival: ‘For the many pleasures that it offers. It has a depth and ambiguity that allows multiple interpretations and balances concerns of the heart and mind.’

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Lida Suchy, Portrait of a Village, Archaeological Museum Bratislava

Being in Bratislava for three full days with time to spare, I explored the city a little. An attempt to find the archaeological museum to see an exhibition of photographs by Lida Suchy titled, Portrait of a Village, resulted in a climb up and around the castle and back again and finally the discovery of the museum next to a construction site along the dual carriageway. It was worth it to see the extraordinary images captured by Suchy of villagers photographed first in the 1990’s and then, twenty years later. Bodies grow and shrink, lines appear, stature is affected and then relaxed and the benefit of hindsight provides new philosophies.

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View of Bratislava from Bratislava Castle

Suchy’s partner, Mišo Suchý was the focus of a retrospective, and his concerns as an ethnographic/documentary filmmaker sat well with the festival’s family theme. At the screening I attended, I had the pleasure of seeing I Have Come a Long Way (1988), About Dogs and People (1993), Pictograph (2007) and Prysia’s Garden (work in progress, 2015) – all beautifully observed and thoughtfully realised studies of people and their environments. During the programme’s introduction, I was identified as the only non-Slovak speaker in the audience and to my surprise, after the lights dimmed, Suchý himself sat in the seat next to mine, whispering to me that he would provide translation as the first film had no subtitles. Akin to a live director’s commentary, the exactness of his hushed interpretation is unknown to me, at least I know that, for example “typical communist propaganda” describes the general, rather than specific translation of one scene in which a TV news program is seen in I Have Come A Long Way. Thanking him for his kindness after the screening, Suchý said simply that he had been in the position of lacking understanding in un-subtitled screenings many times, and he didn’t want to impose that experience on me.

Strangely the rest of the films I saw at BIFF were all American. Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa was typically agonising and hilarious, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight was utterly gripping (and deserves more words than I can offer here) and following Bachelorette, Leslye Headland’s Sleeping with Other People seemed to hide a dark and personal story beneath shiny romantic comedy clichés.

Also recently viewed: My Skinny Sister (Min Lilla Syster, Sanna Lenken, 2015), Mountains May Depart (Shan he gu ren, Jia Zhangke, 2015) and Netflix’s Master of None, created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang.