Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Review: Listen Up Philip

Philip (Jason Schwartzman) is one of those people who simply cannot, or refuses to, be happy. We meet the young novelist in the run-up to the publication of his second novel. Praise makes him nauseous, yet he has no qualms to express the sky-high opinion he holds of himself. A decision to be uniformly honest is brutally respected. Upon hearing about the suicide of a rival wordsmith, whom he was supposed to interview, he sighs: "Oh no! I'm glad he's dead and all, but final interviews are hard to get." 

His misery is contagious, as he offends and alienates everyone around him. The primary sufferer is his girlfriend Ashley (Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss). Philip shows little interest in her successful career as a fashion photographer and soon abandons her in order to retrieve his creative mojo. Ike Zimmerman (a gloriously bearded Jonathan Pryce), a legendary author, has adopted Philip as a mentee and invited him to his countryside retreat away from the distractions of the big city..    

Listen Up Philip's biggest strength is its depiction of the "writer's condition." Writer-director Alex Ross Perry does really well to capture how Philip simultaneously feels superior and inferior to everyone else. Relative success has given him cruelty and arrogance, but his insecurities and anxieties shine through as he is unable to access or express any form of emotion. His situation doesn't really improve either. In Ike, we see Philip's future: an older, equally bitter, version of the same character. Creative accomplishment has taken its toll on the two men. The film, unlike its protagonist, meanwhile has not forgotten about Ashley. In the most positive section of the story, she cleanses herself of the negativity left behind by the departing boyfriend.

Perry shot Philip on Super 16 film stock, which gives the movie a timeless, old-school look. The rough, grainy aesthetic really pays off. The cinematography does however scream indie-cinema a bit too loudly at times. He frequently uses handheld cameras and gets distractingly close to his actors' faces. The lack of character development furthermore tested my patience slightly, as Philip and Ike are not exactly pleasant company. This does not take away from the film's considerable successes. The script is witty and the performances are excellent. It is particularly pleasant to see Jonathan Pryce enjoy himself in a role that matches his talent once again. Listen Up Philip will not make you fall in love with its characters, but you will love to hate them.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Review: Honeytrap brings Brixton to the big screen

Writer-director Rebecca Johnson constructs a heavily fictionalised narrative around a real life event for her debut feature Honeytrap. I won't reveal the details of the case which briefly dominated the headlines in 2009, but the curious can find out more by clicking here. The cinematic version of the story focuses on 15-year-old Layla (Jessica Sula). After spending her formative years with her grandparents in Trinidad, she is thrown into the urban jungle of Brixton.

In the capital, we enter familiar coming-of-age territory. Layla is largely left to her own devices, as mother Shiree (Naomi Ryan) seems more interested in her boyfriend and reality television than her daughter. Desperate to find an identity and to fit in, Layla adapts her style and practices London-slang in front of the bedroom mirror ("allow it fam!"). Shoplifting in the hope of impressing a group of local girls becomes the first of many mistakes she makes over the course of the film. Soon, the attractive teenager is caught up in a love triangle. She attracts the attention of Shaun (Ntonga Mwanza), your typical nice guy, and gangster-rapper Troy (Lucien Laviscount). Unfortunately, Layla instantly falls for the latter.

There are several things to like about Honeytrap. Rebecca Johnson clearly knows what she is talking about; she has been running short film projects with young people in Brixton for more than a decade. Watching a character make one bad decision after another can become a frustrating experience for the audience, but we stay on Layla's side throughout. Johnson never patronises or pities her protagonist and tells the story through the melodramatic lens of a teenage girl. Jessica Sula turns out to be a remarkable screen-presence in the leading role.

We also understand what attracts Layla to Troy despite his reprehensible behaviour. As a budding rapper, he represents (the potential of) fame, money, glamour, and respect. In short, he has the status, the identity, she craves. Music and culture are identified as a potential escape very early on. A drawing of Beyoncé for instance becomes a replacement for maternal love. Fashion likewise becomes a form of communication. In one scene, Layla wears a glittery golden dress in an attempt to make Troy jealous. On the streets of Brixton, she looks ridiculous, but in her own fairytale-world, it makes sense. These little moments of subjective filmmaking show a deep understanding of the female teenage experience in a hostile urban context dominated by men.

The film is however not without flaws. The budget was extremely low ($2 million and change) and it shows. Johnson struggles to make Honeytrap look cinematic, but the visuals remain all too frequently rough and underdeveloped. The film also works much better as a character study than a piece of dramatic storytelling. Her decision to tease the climactic tragic event in the opening scene robs the final act of tension for the unknowing audience member. As a result, the ending is more of an afterthought than an exciting climax. Comparisons to Céline Sciamma's vastly superior (and, to be fair, more expensive) Girlhood don't do Honeytrap any favours either. Both films, released on the same day in the UK, examine the life of a black teenage girl in the modern urban context. If you only have time for one, pick Girlhood, but Honeytrap does make for an interesting companion piece.