Monthly Archives: August 2015

Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

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It seems to be the done thing to give any film dealing with sex an 18 rating these days, regardless of context. Unfortunately Marielle Heller’s debut film Diary of a Teenage Girl has fallen prey to this trend. Adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographical, semi-graphic novel, Diary of a Teenage Girl follows Minnie, a 15-year-old discovering her sexuality. Yes, a film about a 15 year old girl coming to terms with life and sex is not accessible to any actual 15 year old girls. I don’t wish to linger too long on this subject but I think it’s worth comparing the BBFC’s description of Diary of a Teenage Girl to that of Submarine, Richard Ayoade’s painfully hip and indie 2011 story of a teenage boy discovering sexuality which got by with a 15 rating:

“Strong sex scenes include mechanical thrusting, breast and buttock nudity, and implied oral sex. One scene includes brief sight of a pencil drawing of a young woman with a penis in her mouth.

Other issues include several moments of drug use, including cocaine use, the taking of LSD, and the smoking of marijuana. The film also contains strong verbal sex references and over forty uses of strong language (‘f**k’). Some still pictures and short animated sequences include the sight of penises, both erect and flaccid.”

  • Diary of a Teenage Girl

“The quantity of strong language in the film went beyond what is permitted by the BBFC’s Guidelines at ’12A’/’12’ which state that ‘The use of strong language (for example, ‘fuck’) must be infrequent, but ‘frequent use of strong language’ is allowed at ’15’.

Other issues in the film include moderate sex references which occur in the narrative context of teenagers finding out about sex and the central character’s concerns about his parents’ relationship and his mother’s infidelity. The film also portrays aspects of school life such as some relatively mild bullying and playing around with fireworks and matches, as well as teenagers smoking. The anti-social and dangerous activities are not endorsed by the film as a whole and the smoking is not overtly glamorised. There is also a scene in which an emotionally confused teenager swallows some pills, but this does not present as being a serious attempt at self-harm as the manner in which the scene plays out makes it clear that the character has no idea what he is doing, and although he does not come to serious harm his actions are not shown to be without adverse consequences.”

  • Submarine

As far as I can tell, the main problems were the use of the word ‘f**k’ as the 2015 censors endearingly format it and the mere sight of penises (both erect and flaccid): implicitly stating that the mere sight of genitalia belonging to half the planet has more potential to harm the audience than ambiguous suicide attempts and playing with fire. The saddest part is that while the sex scenes are allowed to pass in Submarine since they are “occur in the narrative context of teenagers finding out about sex”, this same context and justification is blithely ignored for Diary of a Teenage Girl. Anyway, it’s a nonsense and a crying shame that this film won’t reach its intended audience that could probably really do with seeing it.

I say that becase Diary of a Teenage Girl isn’t moralising or a cautionary tale. Minnie’s introduction to the adult world involves an affair with a man twenty years her senior, her mother’s boyfriend – no less. She also takes an awful lot of drugs and almost ends up prostituting herself for more drugs thanks to a toxic relationship with a streetwise young lesbian. These aren’t all good ideas, but they happened and the film isn’t here to walk us through what is and isn’t what a young girl “should” be doing. We see Minnie sometimes go too far and find out where she’s comfortable but there’s no one dictating that the viewers’ limits should be different or the same as hers.

The adults in the film seem almost as immature as the teenagers, casually taking drugs for cleaning purposes and failing to really parent them on any level. It all seems like a group of people hanging on to the wild free love spirit of the seventies, but in a way that’s not so out of sync with current attitudes as to be alien. Yes, the décor is all in tasteless shades of orange and the waistbands are higher than one would nowadays consider reasonable but the emotions and events are universal enough for this not to feel like it’s an untouchable past world. Quite the contrary, thanks to Bel Powler’s delicate and consistent performance it’s sometimes hard to remember that you’re watching a film, not an overly-intimate fly on the wall documentary. The diary of the title is a series of candid tapes which form a voiceover for the film. Some of the things said in these tapes sound like extracts from everyone’s thoughts – others are the flights of fancy of Minnie’s own lens on life but it’s all very, very real and heartfelt. This however is balanced out by flourishes of artistic and cinematic creativity. Minnie, a budding cartoonist, interprets the world through pencil drawings that blossom into animated on screen elements at key moments. In this way the film see-saws between gritty realism and almost awkward over-romanticising, something very much akin to the teen experience as a whole.

Diary of a Teenage Girl has the rare quality of being a first film complete with a breakout performance. Nevertheless it still comes out as a delicate, meaningful and enjoyable piece of cinema without the precocity normally associated with a first foray onto the big screen. Sneak your younger sisters in.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:             4/5
  • Intellectual:      3/5

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

firefliesI start this with the same proviso as my The Wind Rises review. I, generally speaking do not like Studio Ghibli films. One day when I have seen the last few that have never passed before my eyes I will explain in more detail why. However, for now, I decided to watch Grave of the Fireflies. Grave of the Fireflies is one of the Ghibli films not directed by Hayao Miyazaki but rather Isao Takahata which, given how people talk, one would assume is a rare breed – not so, only half of the Studio Ghibli films were ever directed by Miyazaki, yet somehow he gets all the glory and is almost synonymous with the production house name.

Anyway, Grave of the Fireflies certainly has a different flavour to the happy-go-lucky Ghibli films one hears most about. Based on the autobiographical short story from Akiyuki Nosaka, Grave of the Fireflies tells the story of two orphans, brother and sister after the bombing of their hometown in the Second World War. It’s not what one expects when you throw an animated film into the DVD player, but then neither is Waltz with Bashir and that’s a fascinating film. In fact, Waltz with Bashir is about the closest I’ve seen to an equivalent film, animation certainly not meant for children and set in a warzone.

Grave of the Fireflies has come under attack precisely for its war-time setting. Many say that it’s an anti-war film, showing the tragedy that young people have to live through as a result of a war they have no part in. Certainly this idea crops up as adults try to force Seita to help the war effort rather than feed and protect his sister, as if the fighting were not only his fault, but his responsibility. Yet more than anything else Grave of the Fireflies seems to entirely ignore the war, letting it just be a backdrop and excuse for the shelter-dwelling existence of these children. The morality of the war, those fighting in it and the concept at large is reduced to a strange juxtaposition that never gets resolved: the war is the source of all their problems and the eventual death of these two children, yet at various intervals the army is portrayed as a glorious institution and Seita is oddly distraught at the defeat of the Japanese army, when that very defeat was his only way out of the wartime famine he’d been living through.

Undeniably there are moments when this film is absolutely beautiful. The first scene where Seita and Setsuko release the fireflies in their home is a wonderful depiction of the innocence of childhood and the joy of small pleasures while living through hell. However, this restrained and elegant mood doesn’t last – the method of animating tears is so jarringly ugly that it breaks you out of the film every time, and these kids do a lot of crying. Yet quite apart from that, the film seems to be created solely to make an audience cry, not necessarily to move them or inspire dialogue about the horrors of war, but just to pull at the heartstrings in a clumsy way. Undoubtedly, you will find yourself crying at the end of it. Undeniably it is very very sad, but this emotion doesn’t come from any great filmmaking prowess. Any film about a five year old dying will make you cry, and most of them don’t need to show you a cutesy montage of said five year old happily enjoying the life she just lost to ram the message home. At best it’s a hamfisted approach to a delicate subject, at worst it’s a manipulative and cynical film that refuses to engage with either the tragedy of war, or the problem of making children believe in the glory of war on any serious level.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:             2/5
  • Intellectual:      2/5

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

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Wes Anderson, it cannot be denied, has his own style. HIs shots are framed with a laser accuracy on an oddly organised and symmetrical world that seems to have fallen through a bath of retro whimsy. This style came to a beautiful fruition in both Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. The Royal Tenenbaums is an earlier film, and one of the films that gained Anderson his religiously obsessive cult following. As the film opens with an unbearably twee chapter heading, as if the fairytale was coming to life before our eyes you understand that you’re in for the same Anderson style that we’re all now used to.

The Royal Tenenbaums are a family where each member is a universe and personality unto themselves, apart from their servant Pagoda (Kumar Pallana) who is a loosely sketched Indian stereotype, and apart from Richie (Luke Wilson) who is a vague re-imagining of Bjorn Borg. The rest have their own clichés and foibles that constitute the entirety of their personality. This is carried through in everything they do, right down to their unchanging costumes, flagging to the viewer that these are not real people, they’re archetypes from someone’s imagination play-acting at being people. For example, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), is an ex-playwright going through a creative slump. Her role in the film is the disenfranchised outsider since she’s the “adopted child”. She has emblematically been a smoker since age 12 but hid it from her family in order to create distance and mystery. The whole film could be her creation, dispassionate, sarcastic and depressingly hollow.

Fittingly the mother figure, Etheline (Anjelica Huston) is an archaeologist. The Royal Tenenbaums is a film entirely about bringing out the skeletons in closets that hang around family homes. This happens when Royal (Gene Hackman), the absentee father who never bothered to get a divorce tries to win back his family’s love – not for any good reason, but out of a misplaced misogynistic and racist outrage that his wife wants to divorce him for her black accountant, who he makes racist quips at throughout the film. His plan to do so is to fake a terminal illness so that he can live rent-free in the family home and mess up his wife’s burgeoning romance.

However, despite all the forcibly injected quirk and orthogonal camera angles it would be naïve to think that this family has anything radically different to deal with than any other, over and above their affectations. If anything, the problems these people deal with are exclusively the result of the pigeon-holes they all put themselves into. Margot is perfectly capable of living a fulfilling life and falling in love, away from her family. Richie had a successful tennis career before he confronted his relationship with his sister. Chas (Ben Stiller) is the only character who sees any real emotional growth through the film, neurotic and paranoid after his wife’s death he decides to clear any danger from his childrens’ lives and thus starts to rob them of any childhood. Even here the message is unclear – Royal manages to win back Chas’ affection by lavishing the attention he never gave Chas on Chas’ kids and by buying them a dog.

All this is epitomised in the character of Eli Cash (Owen Wilson). He was Richie’s childhood friend and now Margot’s lover, although there’s not really any love shared between them. His contact with the Tenenbaums led him into their messy incestuous world and a drug addiction. When Royal eventually does die of an unrelated cause the whole family, as well as Eli, shows up to his funeral. Even his gravestone is a lie, making him out better than he was. At the end of it all you can only conclude that sometimes people who make each other’s lives significantly worse will somehow end up sticking together anyway. It’s too flippant to be a tragedy but too depressing to be a comedy, The Royal Tenenbaums just leaves a taste of dissatisfaction with life lingering in the mouth.

  • Entertainment: 1/5
  • Artistic:             3/5
  • Intellectual:      2/5

Lost River (2014)

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Everyone was curious and excited when Ryan Gosling announced he was going to make a film. I was even more curious when I heard about its appalling reception at Cannes, since the last film I heard such a kerfuffle about at Cannes was The Tree of Life, which, while I am to this day in two minds over, was at least worth the watch.

Lost River is set in a dilapidated American small town created in the aftermath of a reservoir that flooded the old town. Where? Doesn’t matter, but it’s really dilapidated. This town, from which the film takes its name, is home to Billy (Christina Hendricks), a single mother who finds herself in debt and out of luck while her son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) gets himself into altercations with Bully (Matt Smith), the town bully. Lost River is not high on subtlety, despite taking its aesthetic cues from the vastly more subtle Nicolas Winding Refn.

The story of these people is somewhat scattered. It seems as if Gosling was aiming for a grungy urban-fairytale vibe but didn’t know exactly where to take it. The film is a more a collection of tropes than a story, the mute grandmother watching a wedding video, the superstitious girl-next-door and the sleazy macabre nightclub. These are all great ideas, and they’re paired with striking imagery and some good performances, so it’s a shame that none of them really go anywhere. These odd events and people just coexist intercut next to each other looking really really stylish in shades of purple and orange. Just as you think you’ve had your fill of mildly surrealistic picture perfect poverty, Rat (Saoirse Ronan) reveals the “curse” that lies over Lost River, that can only be broken by bringing a piece of the drowned town to the surface. Later in the film the piece brought to the surface will turn out to be a dinosaur head, from the prehistoric theme park in the drowned town. There is no reason for this park to have been created, in fact it has to be clumsily added into an educational video about the reservoir for it to make any sense at all. The layers of artifice just build and build.

All in all the film is just thin. The plot doesn’t really hold together, none of the characters are developed beyond small quirks and idiosyncrasies. Like the forlorn teenagers putting on something fancy to go hang around abandoned factories the film is dressed up with nowhere to go. Slow motion burning houses, yes, are cool. So are soundtracks made exclusively of pulsing electro beats and so are gold sequined jackets. In fact the film is so painfully cool that you can almost forgive it being nothing else, almost. I’m sure some people will love it for its compelling visual style and the heightened fetished weirdness, but it feels very much like an exercise in aesthetic emptiness.

  • Entertainment: 2/5
  • Artistic:             2/5
  • Intellectual:      0/5