Permanent Vacation

~ Films / Words ~

Obvious Child

2014, Dir. Gillian Robespierre

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Gene: Listen, change is good Donna                                                         Donna: Oh man, that’s like the rudest thing you’ve ever said to me

Just like its heroine, Donna Stern, played with vigorous briskness and poignancy by ex-SNL star Jenny Slate, there is something disarmingly honest and arresting about Obvious Child. The debut feature of screenwriter-filmmaker Gillian Robespierre comes with ample praise from the latest Sundance Film Festival but also with the uncomfortable tag ‘abortion comedy’ attached to it.

The story is simple: Donna, a struggling stand-up comedian is recovering from an abrupt and painful break-up while facing the prospect of unemployment when the bookstore that keeps her afloat is forced to close down. The cherry on top comes when she finds herself pregnant after having what she thought was a one-night stand with Max (Jake Lacy), a business student who is sweet but really not her style at all. It is a difficult curve and the fact that Max keeps popping up and asking her out on dates only makes things trickier.

What may sound as a shallow, inverted version of unwanted pregnancy comedies in the vein of Knocked Up and Juno is in fact, and quite refreshingly so, a sincere and thoughtful portrait of a woman, who while is privileged to be living in a time when abortion is a valid and widely available option (even though not everywhere in the US for that matter and definitely not around the world), this doesn’t make the decision any less complex. Even more so, Obvious Child is not preoccupied with the decision itself but with its echo, everything that it sets to motion for its heroine who is used to employ her body and feelings as material for her comedy act. Not that this is in any way a story about a superficial wise-cracking girl who turns all serious after she gets pregnant; there isn’t any kind of moral in the story or dramatic transformation for Donna who, as best friend Nellie states, remains throughout ‘unapologetically herself’. What Obvious Child is offering is a genuine, non-emphatic and self-deprecating coming-of-age comedy from and about women who are complex and well-rounded even when they are a mess.

This is not to say that it does not come without any flaws: the humour is raucous and maybe too American for international audiences, there is some unnecessary quirkiness in some of Donna’s behaviour and mannerisms and although its pure female approach is hugely welcomed, it sometimes feels that the film is a bit too self-aware of its views and constructed around them. In its effort, for instance, to subvert the alpha-male archetype and other repulsive Hollywood stereotypes for men, Obvious Child is perplexed toward its main male character Max who is a bit twee, largely submissive and eternally patient with Donna’s raunchy jokes. Would he presumably also remain unfazed if referred to as a “male human” who is “ok” because he has “a working dick” in her act, contrarily to her jerk ex-boyfriend? For such a realistic movie it feels odd that Max keeps asking Donna out after having been unequivocally shut down twice (if it was a female character we would most definitely see her as a saddo). It is also somewhat awkward that Robespierre feels the need to bluntly throw some feminist textbook at our faces via Nellie’s character (played nonetheless with skill by Gaby Hoffmann), who blurts that “a bunch of weird old white men in robes get to legislate our cunts” -as if we wouldn’t be able to get the message otherwise.   

Despite its occasional clumsiness and aggressiveness, however, Obvious Child, remains charming and potent and deserves all the praise it’s got, not only because it is a contemporary romantic comedy that deals with abortion as a fact of life and not as a subset of politics or religion –at last!- but, perhaps more importantly, because it makes part of a much needed new wave of emerging female filmmakers telling stories about women of their generation.

This Ain’t California

2012, Dir. Marten Persiel

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2012, Berlin. A group of friends reunite to mourn the death of their childhood friend, Denis, who was killed on a mission in Afghanistan. Having lost contact with each other for years, the group are all astounded by the tragic incident, but also by the fact that he grew up to become a soldier. When they knew him, back in the days of the German Democratic Republic, he was an anti-establishment wild boy, a free-spirited troublemaker; he was Panik, the hero of their teenage years.

The morose opening gives way to exciteful tones as Panik’s portrait is woven throughout a fast-paced, seamlessly edited mixture of fiction, found footage -shot in beautifully wistful super 8- and animated re-enactments -great work by Sasha Zivkovic who evokes an air of mysticism in his moving sketches. This is a tribute to the pure joy of a long lost youth, the liberating feeling of being careless and full of enthusiasm, and also, of belonging to a close-knit community brought together by a shared passion; skateboarding.

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frances ha

2012, Dir. Noah Baumbach

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Intelligent, gawky, non-stereotypically beautiful and undeniably charismatic, Greta Gerwig is the perfect antidote to the polished young Hollywood, a worthy, at last, new talent to talk about. Surely, at 29 and with several credits in mumblecore and other indie films, she is not exactly the new kid on the block but Frances Ha marks, without a doubt, her entrance to stardom.

Gerwig clearly is a muse for talented filmmaker and real-life partner Noah Baumbach, but he never treats her like a radiant goddess. Like other of his protagonists, her title character is caught in a post-collegiate malaise; not mature enough for the Real World, she’s still living out of a dorm figuratively (and, at one point, literally) and barely working as an apprentice at a dance company, struggling to make ends meet. While breaking up with her boyfriend seems like a necessary routine, the announcement that her best friend Sophie will be moving out of their flat comes as a big blow. Refreshingly, Frances’ most important relationship is not a romantic link but an idealised friendship that provides the film’s core; what sets off Frances’ journey is the realisation that growing up also means, to a great extend, growing apart. 

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Each art breeds its fanatics. The love that cinema inspired, however, was special. It was born of the conviction that cinema was an art unlike any other: quintessentially modern; distinctively accessible; poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral — all at the same time.

Cinema had apostles. (It was like religion.) Cinema was a crusade. For cinephiles, the movies encapsulated everything. Cinema was both the book of art and the book of life.

Susan Sontag, The Decay of Cinema (1996)

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Heading East - The East End Film Festival 2013 programme announced

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East End Film Festival’s director Alison Poltock and head of programming Andrew Simpson announced yesterday details of the event’s 12th edition which seems to be the largest and most ambitious in its history so far. The festival, which will take place from 25 June to 10 July, boasts a diverse programme focusing on first and second features by emerging filmmakers around the world that add up to over 80 titles, most of them international or UK premieres. 

Complementing the main features strand, EEFF has a dedicated youth programme, CUTTING EAST that is curated by young people themselves, a 3-day industry section, MIND THE GAP featuring panel discussions, workshops and networking events, a focus on Argentinian cinema programmed by last year’s winner Armando Bo (El Ultimo Elvis) and the brand new EMERGE that launches this year and aims to explore the role of digital technology in filmmaking. Last but not least, it would not be a true East London event without fresh music talent to which a whole day is dedicated, the 13th of July (EAST END LIVE).

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Me And You (Io E Te)

2012, Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci

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For someone who has watched and cherished Bertolucci’s least acclaimed coming-of-age summer tale Stealing Beauty (1996) the news the auteur’s new project would be about a lonely fourteen-year-old who spends his days locked in his building’s basement was delighting. I knew, however, I was in the company of very few others -sadly, like many old film ‘masters’, Bertolucci just isn’t that relevant anymore. As the film started rolling I couldn’t hold back feelings of dismay. Do contemporary teenagers still listen to The Cure and The Strokes? What does an immobilised 72-year-old really have to say about today’s youth? And how much room is there for a small Italian film released in the shadow of Harmony Korine’s in-your-face sexy, blinged-up yet dystopian Spring Breakers? The answer is: just enough. Because You And Me, as the title suggests, is a very personal, intimate film about two troubled individuals who cross paths and this crossing brings a small yet emotionally charged change, making their lives just a little bitbetter.

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As the police searched for the Tate killers, Easy Rider roared across America’s screens through the long, hot summer of 1969, through the fall, and into the new year, the new decade. And what a wild ride it would be. The Manson murders may have been a sign, but most people would be too busy making movies, doing drugs, having sex and spending money to heed it.  

Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

Simon Killer

2012, Dir. Antonio Campos

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Antonio Campos has a flair for the dark; in his debut film Afterschool (2008) he introduced us to desensitised, web-video and pornography obsessed student Robert, who, seemingly remains untouched after he accidentally captures on his mobile the death of two of his schoolmates by poisonous drugs.

In his follow-up, Simon Killer, he tells yet another twisted tale, that of the title character, a college graduate who goes to Paris to get over a painful break up. “She was a whore” Simon tells his French cousin in the introductory scene, “I’d like to meet someone new”. And this is exactly what he sets out to do, seeking some soothing and companionship -that gradually turns to obsession and mania. 

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Cosy Biscuit

What I wouldn’t give for a nine to five
Biscuits in the right hand drawer,
teabreaks, and typists to mentally undress.

The same faces. Somewhere to hang
your hat and shake your umbrella.
Cosy. Everything in its place.

Upgraded every few years. Hobbies
Glass of beer at lunchtime
Pension to look forward to.

Two kids. Homeloving wife.
Bit on the side when the occasion arises
H.P. Nothing fancy. Neat semi.

What I wouldn’t give for a nine to five.
Glass of beer in the right hand drawer
H.P. on everything at lunchtime

The same 2 kids. Somewhere to hang
your wife and shake your bit on the side.
Teabreaks and a pension to mentally undress

The same semifaces upgraded.
Hobbies every few years, neat typists
in wet macs when the umbrella arises.

What I wouldn’t give for a cosy biscuit.

-Roger McGough

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Norwegian Wood

2010, Dir. Anh Hung Tran

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Haruki Murakami’s nostalgic coming-of-age novel Norwegian Wood is one of those books that quickly become hot film projects. A global success, selling over 10 million copies worldwide, it is the acclaimed author’s most accessible work - a story of youth, sexuality, love and loss set in late sixties Tokyo. The book’s international fan base not only indicates a successful film adaptation, but also offers Japanese cinema the opportunity to approach a more mainstream western audience showcasing a production totally different from the horror, manga and anime films or Takeshi Kitano’s idiosyncratic creations that it is popular for. Of course, there’s always a difficulty in adapting books for the screen and the more famous the writer, the bigger the challenge for the filmmaker. In Norwegian Wood the main challenge is that the narrative progresses slowly with its main character largely remaining passive through it.

The protagonist is Toru Watanabe, a 19-year-old student spending his time between classes, part-time jobs and one-night stands encouraged by his dorm friend Nagawasa. His seemingly carefree student life, though, is clouded by Toru’s grief for his best friend Kizuki, who committed suicide when they were still in high school. One day, he runs into Kizuki’s long-term girlfriend, the beautiful and fragile Naoko and they soon come close to each other, drawn together by their mutual wound. However, their romance abruptly comes to a halt as Naoko, constantly tormented by the past, withdraws to a remote retreat leaving Toru devastated. Deeply in love, he promises to stay loyal until she gets better, but their relationship is increasingly challenged, not only by Naoko’s worsening condition, but also from the coming of a new girl in Toru’s life, the lively and free-spirited Midori.

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