The Keeping Room – Film Review

The Keeping Room

Having made a bold debut in 2009 with the violent British drama Harry Brown director Daniel Barber has gone in a completely different direction in his follow-up. Rather than contemporary Britain The Keeping Room is set in rural America as the American Civil War comes to a close. As the Union Army approaches two sisters and their slave find themselves forced to defend their farm from two brutal soldiers who are taking advantage of women and towns left unprotected as their menfolk have turned to soldiering.

Sisters Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) have a close but tempestuous relationship as Augusta tries to control her younger sister; a young woman not enamoured by hard work and who takes against their slave Mad (Muna Otaru). When Louise is bitten Augusta is forced to leave the farm in search of medicine and in doing so draws the attention of two roving soldiers whose modus operandi is raping and killing. When Augusta returns to the house the two men follow and a battle for survival begins between three women and two trained soldiers. Can the three survive and is their way of life going to be intact if they do get through the night?

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The Keeping Room opens with a scene of harrowing violence and does not pause for a moment of levity from that moment to the film’s close. With a tight running time the simple plot is artfully stretched with a slow menacing pace as the film luxuriates in each scene. Nothing is rushed here and every last drop of tension is extracted where possible. Most scenes feel like a standoff between two characters and it is never obvious who will flinch first and who will come out alive. Maintaining this endless suspense shows skill in Barber’s direction and is nothing short of exhausting for the audience.

Marling, Steinfeld, and Otaru all give subtle understated performances as the three women with only each other to rely on. Marling and Otaru in particular play characters who have to outwardly project a level of control and stoicism whilst allowing the audience to see the uncertainty and fear that simmers beneath. Whilst it is always a shame to see another film portraying violence against women The Keeping Room does not glorify or revel in the violence that takes place, even choosing not to show what other films might feast on. Ultimately this is not the story of women being victimised but of a group of women choosing to take a stand, fight back, and protect their home. These are female characters with complex personalities and vulnerabilities but who stand strong in spite of their fear.

In many ways The Keeping Room is an unpleasant watch with its savage but non-gratuitous violence and infinite levels of suspense and tension. If you can stomach these and are in the mood for a thriller with some admirable female characterisation then I advise you look in on this bleak story of survival.

Next to Her – Film Review

Next to Her

Chelli (Liron Ben-Shlush) and Gabby (Dana Ivgy) are sisters who live together in Israel. Chelli loves Gabby dearly and in the absence of their mother has taken it upon herself to look after her younger sister whilst still maintaining a day job. Like all siblings they love each other yet often fight and their close relationship has lead to an unacknowledged amount of co dependency. What makes their situation particularly tricky is that Gabby is intellectually disabled and Chelli is her sole carer.

When a social worker discovers that Gabby is left alone at home during the day, often banging her head against the floor, Chelli is forced to share her burden and take Gabby to a day centre. It is at the point that her sister is no longer totally dependant on her that Chelli finds herself lost and without the purpose she once had. Without the feeling of someone else depending on her completely Chelli no longer feels as loved and so seeks out romantic love instead.

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With her unique living circumstances finding love is not easy for Chelli but new co-worker Zohar (Yaakov Daniel Zada) shows some promise. As she and Zohar become closer and his relationship with Gabby also develops Chelli finds herself struggling to keep the two people she loves the most happy as their needs often conflict with one another. The entirety of the film is a series of struggles as people with imperfect lives strive to make them work and tear each other down in the process.

Not only taking the lead but also having written the script Ben-Shlush gives a soulful and honest performance as Chelli; an imperfect woman trying to make the most of a devastating situation. Ivgy gives a wholly convincing turn as the handicapped younger sister and Zada is fantastically hard to read as the too good to be true Zohar.

Next to Her is at times almost painful to watch as the ordeals of the characters start to take a toll on those watching. The film is ultimately rewarding as you are left to question your own judgements of the characters and ask yourself how you might cope in similar circumstances. Coming out of the screening I found myself breathing a sigh of relief and a little too shaken to take in the next film on the schedule. After an experience like Next to Her you will want to take a stroll in the fresh air and let yourself escape from the film. A tough but worthy watch.

Next to Her is on limited release in the UK now.

Still the Water – LFF Review

Still the Water

On the subtropical Japanese island of Amami two young teenagers find themselves struggling to deal with their parents while awkwardly taking their first romantic steps together. Kyôko (Jun Yoshinaga) lives with her parents in a house shaded by a 400-year-old banyan tree. Her mother, a shaman, is sick and dying and all Kyôko and her father can do is try to make her comfortable and savour the time they have left together. Kyôko’s friend Kaito (Nijiro Murakami) has moved to the island with his mother. They have left a city life in Tokyo and Kaito’s tattooist father behind. As Kyôko must come to terms with losing her mother while surrounded by a large extended family, Kaito is forced to adjust to life with just his mother on an island cut off from civilisation and his heritage. Through sadness, anger, heartbreak, and companionship Kyôko and Kaito are bonded together and a sweet teenage romance blossoms.

Spread out over two hours Still the Water is not a film of thrilling action and explosive stunts but one of quiet emotions and the slow development of characters and relationships. Rather than follow the traditional three act structure made up of scenes that service a simple plot and drive towards its conclusion Still the Water instead takes on a more fluid pace. Scenes flow from one to the next in slow, lyrical fashion with mood and tone more important than exposition and function.

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Kyôko’s journey through the film is one tinged with sadness. Much as the impending death of her mother casts its shadow over events she remains a positive presence and could never be said to have wallowed. Moments featuring Kyôko and her parents just sitting around their house and talking are tender in their simplicity. These authentic moments of a family enjoying each other’s company, teasing and joking with one another, are what make the film sing. Kyôko’s story is so painfully sad because the audience believes in her family and the love they share. There is an innocence to be found in the story of a young girl and her sick mother, a fable told through numerous Studio Ghibli films, and upon losing her mother this girl finds her strength within the sadness.

Kaito’s story is just as painful for him but tinged more with anger than sorrow. Wrenched away from his previous life in the bustling metropolis of Tokyo and struggling to deal with the separation of his parents Kaito turns his mother into his own personal antagonist. Kaito’s pain is at once completely understandable and totally unreasonable. His upset comes not from a logical place but from a deep instinctive sense of betrayal. Despite both having trouble in their families when Kaito and Kyôko are together they retreat into childish playfulness and happiness. Theirs is such a tender, tentative romance. One that flashes into maturity when emotions and events come to a head and Kyôko shows her strength by putting aside personal grief to try to control her young love’s rage.

If what I have said so far sounds like waffle then it is only because Still the Water is so hard to justify using words. This is a film that expresses itself best through stunning visuals, quiet moments of contemplation, and a gentle rocking pace. Writer & director Naomi Kawase has created a film that feels truly organic. A natural phenomenon that talks of the loss of innocence and subtle power that love can bring.

A quiet film about love, life, and death Still the Water will make you smile through your tears.

Still the Water is on limited release in the UK now..

BFI LFF 2014

Listen Up Philip – LFF Review

Listen Up Philip

Listen Up Philip starts with a detailed voiceover courtesy of Eric Bogosian; a voiceover that details the precise actions, inner thoughts and intentions of the main character; voiceover that possesses the deep tone of the opening vocals at the start of (500) Days of Summer but at a faster pace. This voiceover does not relent and for the first few minutes I grew convinced that the entire film would be told by a narrator but thankfully after these first few minutes the narration stopped only to reappear at random intervals throughout the film. What this voiceover added was an almost literary like level of detail about the inner working of a character’s head; the very detail that often makes books tricky to adapt into films. Why might a film want to add literary levels of detail? Because the lead character is an author or course.

Jason Schwartzman plays the titular role of Philip, a newly successful author whose sense of self-accomplishment has reached a level that has made him emotionally distant from his photographer girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss) and generally an insufferable prick. Schwartzman has played an unlikeable author before in the TV series Bored to Death but with Philip he is taking the idea to an extreme and plays a person who is rude to everyone he meets and so naturally becomes more attractive to the women in his life. As part of his success-driven mid-life crisis Philip strikes up a friendship with an equally acerbic older author, and personal hero, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). Ike enjoys the presence of a young adoring author and so invites Philip to stay at his country retreat. From here Philip spends 108 minutes of film behaving appallingly and ruining his life. The details of which I advise you to see the film to find out.

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Listen Up Philip is a curious beast and avoids any sense of predictability or formulaic ststorytelling. There is no real structure to the film as Philip just meanders along being irritating to a variety of people in a variety of circumstances in an incredibly enjoyable way. The fact that Schwartzman has played this character, or someone very like it, before means that he is well suited to the role of self aggrandising protagonist. There are few people I could watch being this unpleasant for this long but thankfully Jason Schwartzman is one of them. What was also pleasing about the film is that it often lets focus wander away from Philip. Initially I was concerned that Moss had been given an unforgiving girlfriend role but soon enough she had her own narrative, and her own narration, as we saw how she lived life whilst Philip was away. The film widens its scope, stretches its running time, and risks trying its audience’s patience by fleshing out the lives of a few supporting characters. While a little unfocused I think that without this the saturation of the caustic character of Philip would become too much to bear.

Writer and director Alex Ross Perry has given the film a very tactile autumnal aesthetic. There is a golden glow to most of the scenes and an abundance of beards, jumpers, and jazz. I have said before about films, that I felt as though I could reach out and feel the texture of the film. Listen Up Philip is all about people rubbing each other up the wrong way and the screen is filled with itchy looking fabrics and faces that help compliment this irritable feel. The voiceover can occasionally become a little heavy handed but I can only assume that this is the way it would feel to read one of Philip’s novels. The rest of the film, though a little long, is an enjoyable character study that shows how a modest amount of success can be someone’s undoing and if nothing else looks lovely. I quite liked it.

Listen Up Philip is in UK cinemas from today.

BFI LFF 2014

Spring – LFF Review

Spring

What starts off as a grim tale in small town America quickly moves into a European romance before slowly evolving into a monster movie. It does all this with a healthy dose of humour and a sincere amount of heart. Spring is unlike anything I’ve seen before and is certainly not the film I was expecting from the opening scene.

The film opens on Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) losing his final family member, his mother, before getting drunk in a bar and beating up a local thug. With the possibility of being sued or attacked Evan does what any self-respecting film character would do; he flees the country. In Italy he stays in hostels before quickly finding work on a farm and falling for the charms of local girl Louise (Nadia Hilker). Despite initially rebuffing Evan’s advances Louise slowly falls for the foreigner over the course of a week and the independent life she leads is threatened by this change.

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So far we have the plot of a wannabe Richard Linklater film. Spring certainly lives up to the comparison with a witty script from Justin Benson and impressively controlled direction from Benson and Aaron Moorhead which includes some admirable camerawork. Where this film swerves away from the emotional drama it sets up is in the sudden introduction of a decidedly fantastical element that puts Evan’s life at risk and threatens to end their budding romance before it can begin. What that element is I am hesitant to reveal but suffice it to say that Evan sees a much less attractive side to Louise and must prove his loyalty by dealing with a peculiar genetic abnormality.

What makes Spring the enjoyable feature I experienced is the fact that it refuses to stick to a genre or conform to any conventions. After starting with an American indie aesthetic it doesn’t feel jarring when the plot takes in fantasy/sci-fi elements as the directors make the plot fit their style and not the other way around. Having wild events take place in a grounded reality makes the unbelievable seem that much more believeable and allows the audience to swallow what they are being shown.

Spring is a romantic comedy sci-fi drama with a real sense of fun. I didn’t know what I was getting to when I trotted along to the screening and giving this film the element of surprise is highly recommended. Leave your scepticism at home and give this unique slice of cinema a try.

Spring is on limited release in UK cinemas.

BFI LFF 2014