Thirteen Reasons Why Review: A thought-provoking show that lets itself down with needless shock-factor.

I remember reading the bestselling book Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher when I was maybe 15/16 years old. Not much younger than the characters depicted, I found the book heart-breakingly honest about people’s natural self-involvement and lack of compassion for others. I heard several years ago that attempts were being made to adapt the book for the screen so when it popped up on my Netflix homepage I clicked to watch the first episode immediately.13-reasons-why-netflix

Note: This does include plot spoilers.

The premise of the story starts a few weeks after the suicide of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford). The protagonist Clay (Dylan Minnette), an awkward teenage boy who you learn later on has feelings for Hannah receives a  box full of cassette tapes with the numbers 1 to 13 painted in blue nail varnish upon them. When played he is startled to hear Hannah’s voice who then tells the tale of the 13 reasons as to why she ended her life as well as instructions on an elaborate chain-message to pass the tapes along to the people she deems responsible for her death. The exchange of the tapes is being monitored by an initially unknown person (although in the Netflix series it becomes obvious very quickly who this is) and the recipients of the tapes are kept quiet under threat of the information on the tapes becoming public.

The main difference between the book and the adaptation is a huge expansion of characters due to Clay no longer listening to all the tapes in one night and having an emotional journey that built up to the conclusion, the world is expanded having Clay instead listen to them over a series of weeks and confronting the characters involved in Hannah’s story.  In some ways I think this strengthens the stories, giving a voice to these character’s experiences which aren’t Hannah’s point of view. More aspects become connected and thrilleresque subplots develop around the central storyline which adds more suspense to the story and allows the characters and story to become far more complicated and nuanced than in the original text. I particularly liked how Hannah’s parents were handled within the show and how the show explored grief and loss both from Clay’s and Hannah’s parents perspective.

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However, some scenes feel manipulatively distressing particularly the key scene in the final episode in which you watch step by step as Hannah commits suicide graphically in a bath and how her parents find her lifeless body. The scene is clearly supposed to be horrific and upsetting but I don’t think that watching the full suicide brought anything to the show other than being purposefully shocking for shocking’s sake. On the other hand, I will note that there are disclaimers at the start of the episodes in which these scenes are shown. Other aspects of the show feel overly dramatised and stray too far from the main point of the story, especially the pretty weak attempt at setting up a second season.

Despite this, the show is compelling. The two leads are fantastic pulling off great chemistry as well as bringing a sense of longing from both sides of the relationship. I enjoyed some of the new subplots as well as Clay’s (much longer) journey to discovering the reasons and I still think the story has a clear and important message of looking outwards and encouraging you to reach out and connect with those who may be hurting.

If you have Netflix, and especially if you enjoyed the book it is definitely worth checking out this adaptation.

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I Am Not Madame Bovary (2016) Review.

Originally written for and posted on Film Inquiry.

Directed by Feng Xiaogang, I Am Not Madame Bovary tells the story of Li Xuelian (played by Fan Bingbing) who, in order to get the apartment she desires, conspires to get a “fake” divorce from her husband. However, once the divorce is official, she is shocked to discover that her now ex-husband has moved into the apartment with another woman. This begins her quest to have her “fake” divorce annulled so she can remarry her husband and then divorce him “for real”.

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I Am Not Madame Bovary is written by Liu Zhenyun and based on his 2012 novel I am Not Pan Jinlian. The book was translated in order to keep the same connotations, and both Pan Jinlian and Madame Bovary connote promiscuity, adultery, and shame. When Li Xuelian confronts her ex-husband about his betrayal, he publically humiliates her, calling her a “Pan Jinlian” for having pre-marital sex, which only fans the flames of her vengeance and her need to seek justice.

A Political Dark Comedy

The film is highly critical of Chinese bureaucracy, both using the plot to highlight its inability to care about anything other than their job position, as well as poking fun at the workings of officialdom with the conversations between the officials themselves. Li Xuelian is so fed up that at one point she tries to hire someone to kill both her ex-husband and the government officials who have failed her. The moment is funny and well written, but also dark as you watch her become unhinged in frustration.

More than ten years pass in the film, and Xuelian continues to sue the state for failing to recognise her case. She confronts officials in the street, hurls herself in front of their cars. Eventually, they become afraid of her, and afraid of losing their jobs due to being unable to stop her protesting. The film works as a dark comedy to a degree, satirising the Chinese bureaucratic system, but it is very repetitive. The second half’s events set later in the protagonist’s life are very similar to the first half, since she meets the same people and faces the same obstacles. But at times it is funny and twisted, and pokes fun in a clever and subtle way.

A Unique Use of Aspect Ratios

Most of the film is framed with a round aspect ratio that gives the story the feeling of examining one of the examples of Chinese paintings shown during the prologue of the film. Due to the miniature space the filmmakers have given themselves to work with, everything is highly stylised and dramatised, making use of every inch of the space.

I Am Not Madame Bovary
source: Well Go USA Entertainment

I Am Not Madame Bovary occasionally has a Wes Anderson feel with its dry humour, as it is overly choreographed and with not-quite-realistic settings. When Xuelian arrives in Beijing, the aspect ratio changes to a smart-phone-like portrait view, allowing you to see more of the frame – but everything is also blander as she meets identical bureaucrat and bureaucrat, getting nowhere. However, although I enjoyed this unique style, it did make the subtitles difficult to read and sometimes made it hard to see facial expressions clearly, which overshadowed somewhat Fan Bingbing, who otherwise is brilliant with her subtle and emotional performance. She shines amongst the otherwise all-male cast who also perform well, with great comedic timing.

To Conclude

Overall, I Am Not Madame Bovary is a tongue-in-cheek criticism of Chinese politics, as well as their view of women and sexuality. Xuelian is a fantastic character who may not be educated or wealthy, but is driven and passionate about finding justice for herself. I definitely enjoyed the film and its unique stylistic aesthetic, as well as the strong performances throughout.

Would a unique visual style make you more likely to see a film? Is that something filmmakers should be experimenting with more?

I Am Not Madame Bovary is currently playing in the USA and China. For all international release dates, click here.

The Uncondemned (2016) Review.

Originally written for and posted on Film Inquiry.

The Uncondemneddirected by Michele Mitchell and Nick Louveltells the story of a group of young international lawyers and activists who fought to have rape recognised and prosecuted as a war crime. Underfunded, inexperienced and overwhelmed, they faced huge hurdles as they pursued their first case against a small town mayor in Rwanda.

THE UNCONDEMNED: A Heartbreaking Real-Life Courtroom Drama That's Slow To Start

Crimes of war against humanity had not been prosecuted since post-WWII, and surviving witnesses feared to come forward amongst death threats against them and their families. The film documents the brave Rwandan women who came forward to testify and win justice for the crimes committed against them.

A Bit of Context

Despite rape being recognised as an international war crime since 1919, no one had ever been prosecuted for it prior to 1997 during the trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu, which was part of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. However, even though rape during war has been a recurrent feature of wars throughout history, it has always been looked upon as a by-product of conflict, and not an effective military policy.

THE UNCONDEMNED: A Heartbreaking Real-Life Courtroom Drama That's Slow To Start
source: Abramorama

As explained in the documentary, these systematic sexual assaults are something that destroys not just the individual but the familial fabric, the social fabric and the economic fabric of a society. It is something that is used against a population to make it submit. Due to the tireless efforts of the men and women shown in this film, rape was tried for the first time as a war crime and as an aspect of genocide.

Legal Jargon and a Dull First-Half

The structure is in the style of courtroom dramas, moving between archival footage, sound from the testimony and court proceedings, as well as recent interviews with the integral people that are part of the operation. They describe the push-backs from the tribunal to include rape as a war crime charge for the trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu.

Whilst some of it was very interesting, I found the first half of The Uncondemned difficult to follow. I had little knowledge of the events that occurred in Rwanda in the 1990s other than being aware of some of the terrible events that had occurred against the Tutsi people. The documentary offers little information about the events leading up to the tribunal and subsequent trial. Many different faces and places are mentioned without much contextualisation that would help the viewer understand the twists and turns of this plot coherently. There are no names or titles overlayed during the modern interview sequences that could help you grasp who is who, and I believe that would have helped a lot with getting to grips with the story. A lot of legal jargon is used, which made it difficult for someone with little to no legal knowledge understand what was going on.

Heartbreakingly Human Conclusion

The last half is where The Uncondemned reaches its climax – during the buildup we are introduced to four Rwandan women who have formed a support group for the rape victims of their village spurred by the victim herself, Godelieve Mukasarasi, and some of the lawyers and activists supporting the case. She realised that it was killing the women to be silent about their trauma, due to culturally not talking about their bodies and the shame associated with the violent assaults they had endured. You immediately are rooting for these women to testify against the mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu and to break the cycle of silence and shame for these victims, especially when they are flown to speak in front of the UN. It makes you feel uplifted and inspired by these amazing women.

Overall, this is a subject matter that outshines its documentary. It lacks contextualisation for the interviewees and makes the first half hard to follow. However, it is the brave women and the inspiring conclusion of The Uncondemned that makes it a heartbreaking, human, and empowering watch, and it reveals an important part of forgotten history.

Do you think it’s important for a documentary to give you the context of the subject matter? Or do you think you should do some research before you watch it? 

The Uncondemned was released on October 21 and 28, 2016 in NYC and LA. 

 

Film Review Round Up Vol. 4

Queen of Katwe (2016)- Directed by Mira Nair

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Based on a true story, Disney’s Queen of Katwe follows Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl living in Uganda with her mother (Lupita Nyong’0). Her world completely changes when she is introduced to the game of chess by a youth worker (David Oyelowo) the film follows her rags-to-riches esque story as she fights through prejudice, self-doubt, and poverty to strive for her dream of being a chess champion. It’s a feel good film overall but definitely an emotional rollercoaster you can be laughing one minute and on the verge of tears another. I absolutely loved this film, the performances by all the cast are fantastic and it has a brilliant credit sequence at the end. Definitely go and support this film while it is out in cinemas!

Fan (2016)- Directed by Mannish Sharma

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I was intrigued to watch this film after watching Mark Kermode’s favourite films of the year so far video on youtube. I was mostly interested because I saw the film starred Shah Rukh Khan who I’d previously seen in the 2001 film Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham playing both the older and the younger characters in the film. The CGI alone in this is great, both characters are believably different ages whilst also looking identical, which is impressive to pull off. Shah Rukh Khan is fantastic playing two completely different characters, both the obsessive stalking fan and the idol. The film is a bit silly, traveling all over the world (who knew you could get a train from Kings Cross, London directly to Dubrovnik, Croatia?) and featuring crazy action sequences. It doesn’t really say anything new with its analysis of fan culture but it’s definitely an enjoyable watch.

The Lovers and The Despot (2016)- Directed by Ross Adam and Robert Cannan 

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I was interested in the idea of this documentary after watching the trailer, it seemed like such an absurd story especially to be one that is based on real events. The basic premise is that using secretly recorded tapes of Kim Jong-il as well as interviews with some of the people involved. The documentary recounts the story of how in 1978, South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and her ex-husband, filmmaker Shin Sang-ok were independently kidnapped by film-lover North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and were forced to make films in order to improve the North Korean film industry. The film has you hooked throughout like a real-life thriller, It explains their brainwashing, their lives as prisoners for 7 years and their amazing escape from North Korea. It is terrifying and fascinating to watch.

What have you been watching lately?

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) Review.

It’s no secret that I absolutely adore stop-motion animation and Laika Studios (Coraline, The Box Trolls)  is in my opinion the best out there at this style. Kubo and the Two Strings, follows young one-eyed Japanese boy named Kubo who is hunted from birth by his grandfather, known as the  Moon King. Armed with a shamisen Kubo is forced to flee the home he shares with his mother and winds up on a scavenger trail-esque adventure with a talking monkey and a samurai beetle.

The film has a fantastic balance of comedy, emotional scenes and genuinely scary moments throughout (that probably would have terrified me as a child!) and it definitely had surprising moments that emotionally cut you right to your core. The animation was fantastic as expected, and even exceeded my expectations. Laika Studios really seem to be pushing what is possible with this medium and it’s absolutely fantastic to watch.kubopuppet

If that hasn’t sold you yet the film features what is believed to be the largest stop motion puppet ever made (pictured above, it’s 16 feet tall!)

Overall, if you haven’t seen this magical adventure film yet please do go buy a ticket to support this amazing animation studio who just keep getting better and better with their storytelling style and I can’t wait to see what they do next!

Film Review Round Up Vol. 3

Everything Before Us (2016)

Directed by Wesley Chan and Philip Wang, Everything Before Us is a unique analysis of love and relationships. I watched this on Netflix, I believe it was never released in cinemas in the UK which is a shame because this is a beautiful, wistful film. Set in an alternate world/ dystopian society in which The D.E.I. – The Department Of Emotional Integrity judges the public’s romantic lives and assigns each individual a ‘relationship score’. Scores influence everything including finances, relationships, employment, etc Everything Before Us  follows 2 couples who navigate this world. One, a new young couple recently registered with the D.E.I beginning a long distance relationship at college. The other, an older ex-couple. The film is incredibly well written, bittersweet and realistic. Although the story line relatively predictable I found myself tearing up at certain moments because the character development makes you care so much about the protagonists through their moments of joy and pain. Pretty much the entire cast is Asian-American which was a refreshing difference to the american romance genre. Overall, I really enjoyed this film and if you have a Netflix account I highly recommend you give it a watch.

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Catch Me Daddy (2015)

Directed by Daniel Wolfe in his first feature, this British thriller follows Laila, (portrayed by Sameena Jabeen Ahmed in her first role) who is hiding out from her family after running away with her boyfriend. Set amongst the backdrop of the Yorkshire moors Laila must go on the run when she learns that her brother a long with a group of men is on the hunt for her in her town. This film is an absolutely terrifying portrayal of a modern day honour killing in Britain although the phrase is never mentioned. Warning, There are gruesome upsetting scenes that stay long with you after watching. Sameena’s performance as Laila is brilliant supported by Conor McCarron who had great chemistry  together. The cinematography is stunning and adds an artistic and unreal element to this otherwise social realist film. Overall, this is a difficult watch and powerful film.

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Life (2015)

I wanted to see this at Berlinale in 2015 so when I saw it available on Amazon Video I snapped up the chance to watch it. Directed by Anton Corbijn it tells the story of the relationship between LIFE photographer Dennis Stock wonderfully played by Robert Pattinson (Maps to the Stars, Twilight Saga) and the actor James Dean played by Dane Dehaan (Kill Your Darlings, Chronicle). Historically, Stock took some of the most iconic images of James Dean during his rise to stardom and the film lovingly re-creates and imagines these moments throughout the film. The production overall was beautiful including the costumes and sets looking exactly like the photographs which they show before the credits at the end of the film. Unfortunately the film itself is relatively dull, it takes a long time before anything happens and there is little character development nor any resemblance of a realistic relationship dynamic between Stock and James Dean. However, the people who made this film clearly loved the subject and it comes through with every scene so I would recommend simply for that if you are a fan of old hollywood and James Dean.

Film Review Round Up Vol. 2

I’ve been catching up on some of the oscar nominated female led documentaries recently, here are some of my mini reviews.

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A Girl in The River: The Price of Forgiveness 

Directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (Song of Lahore, Saving Face), this film won the Academy Award for best short documentary film. Set in Pakistan, Saba is the victim of an attempted honour killing committed by her father and uncle for marrying without parental consent. The documentary follows her story and the legal proceedings that followed. The story is both human and political, showing the unfair and sexist legal process and the pressure upon her to forgive her attempted murderers (which would grant them their freedom). Throughout the film Saba is shown struggling with her decision, her community and village elders demanding she make peace despite it putting her in danger. Overall, A Girl in The River: The Price of Forgiveness is both compelling and infuriating.

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The Hunting Ground

Directed by Kirby Dick, the film explores the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses in the United States, the ways in which the college’s try to hide it and the effect it has on the victims. The majority of the film is young men and women describing their experiences at college cut together with horrifying statistics and statements from college current and former staff. Whilst it has some questionable statistics present in the film the raw emotional core is one of anger and betrayal by the college system one which I believe can be felt here in the UK as well. The Hunting Ground is a battle cry against the colleges who have tried to keep these women silent and is a compelling documentary to watch.

Film Review Round up Vol. 1

This is my new mini- film review series, I haven’t had much time lately to update this blog so I thought I’d just share my thoughts on some films I’ve seen recently.

I tried to get tickets for this film when I was at Berlinale earlier this year but unfortunately was unsuccessful so, when I saw this was being screened in Manchester I was excited to finally go see it.  As you can see on the poster, Victoria directed by Sebastian Schipper is a feature length film shot entirely in one take. I didn’t actually know this going into the film which I’m actually glad about because it meant that I was completely engrossed and unsuspecting of all the twists and turns this film takes; and believe me there are a lot of them, the events in this film escalate very quickly.

As someone who has produced several short films, I am astounded at the amount of planning and preparation this must have taken given that the characters in this film are constantly changing location by foot, by bike and by car. The film itself is surprising, dark and thrilling to watch as the events play out. The one-shot technique chosen for this film really brings you into the action and makes the events feel far more up close and personal.

misshokusaiI saw Miss  Hokusai directed by Keiichi Hara as part of The Japan Foundation- Touring Film Programme 2016. Based on the manga Sarusuberi by Hinako Sugiura, Miss Hokusai is inspired by the real life daughter of the artist Katsushika Hokusai, famously known for painting  The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (1830). The film explores her role both publicly  as his daughter and privately as an artist in her own right. The film is non-linear allowing a more anecdotal structure and moves away from a traditional biopic approach but never comes to any climax or conclusion. However it does have an emotional family focussed story with a spiritual and supernatural undertone that was engaging and heartfelt.

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If you know me, you know I love animation and have a particular soft spot for stop-motion ever since watching The Nightmare Before Christmas when I was younger. I find the craft of stop- motion incredible and in this department Anomalisa directed by Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, Adaptation) and Duke Johnson (Marrying God) was stunning. The stop motion, (while purposefully not seamless) was used as a device to explore the protagonists inner turmoil and depression in a really visual, and interesting way.  However, I think it was the sound design that was the most innovative aspect of this film. The way they played with voice and sound to give a sense of monotony and then colour to the protagonist’s landscape whilst keeping the overall visual style relatively mundane was really surreal and different.

Silent Films on the Big Screen.

I recently saw the 1928 film Underground with a live musical score by HarmonieBand at HOME.  The film explores a love triangle that forms on the London Underground when two men are attracted to the same woman. I really enjoyed this film with its live musical accompaniment, it was pretty impressive to see the band as 2 of the members were constantly switching instruments. The film itself was directed by Anthony Asquith and whilst telling a love story it documented the London Underground system in the late 1920s.

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I absolutely loved Underground, It did the usual love triangle plot device of the rejected man framing the chosen man and making him look unfaithful but rather than doing what I expected and the chosen man trying to seek redemption and win back the protagonist she believed him, trusted him and took it upon herself to seek out what really happened. The cinematography of the escalators and underground trains was brilliant and very familiar despite being shot in 1929.

Earlier in the year there was a special screening of The Son of The Sheik (1926), as part of the season of films exploring sex and sexuality. Valentino, one of the first cinematic sex symbols stars in this film sequel about the son of a sheik and a dancing girl falling in love, he then seeks revenge due to believing she has betrayed him.

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Now, The Son of The Sheik was a film I didn’t quite like as much as Underground. It was a massive cliche of the silent film era, dashing hero, helpless love interest, lots of riding around on horses, that kind of thing. I did enjoy it simply because it was such a cliche film meaning it was hilarious in places and was exactly what you would expect a film like this to be.

I think it’s brilliant that I have been able to see silent films at the cinema, especially with live musical accompaniment, it really brings the films to life and showcases work that isn’t always accessible. I know I for one would love to see more films from that era so I hope cinemas continue to do events like this!