Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier, 1955)

Unlike some of my other choices during this themed week of war films, this one very much is in the classic war genre, as a group of soldiers band together to fight the enemy, in what has become a patriotic epic for Finland, remade many times over the years.


I gather this occupies quite a prominent place in the Finnish film pantheon, and I suppose that must largely be for the way it ties in a country’s idea of itself into a group of characters at a key and difficult moment in their history, via a novel and many subsequent adaptations. It tells the story of a group of soldiers in a machine gun unit during World War II, when Finland was allied with Germany against its old foe of Russia, and the key to pulling that off I suppose is to focus tightly on these men, with all their various issues with their commanding officers as well as, eventually, the whole idea of the fight itself. (Not because they don’t hate the Russians, but just because it all seems so futile.) The core of the film is in these interactions, whether in training camps at the start, trudging across the country to the front lines, and then in the trenches, and you get a sense of the different guys, even if at times the film is somewhat reliant on familiar tropes: the cynical one, the grumpy one, the anti-authoritarian and yet supremely talented one (who may be a hero but is also a bit of a d!ck). The chief feeling in these scenes is a gentle sort of comedy, even a hint of satire — it never feels fully mocking of the war itself, but there’s something reminiscent of a lot of wartime-set television sitcoms to these interactions, a gentle sort of self-deprecating humour. And then, periodically, one or more of the characters faces something really nasty that jars you out of that feeling, as these almost interminable battle scenes stretch out, replete with falling bombs, trees blowing up, bullets flying and people getting crushed, maimed or shot. Some of the humour has dated somewhat, and it does run rather long, but it feels like it defines the spirit of a certain era of a country, and for someone like me who has no connection to Finland, I can almost see the appeal.

The Unknown Soldier film posterCREDITS
Director Edvin Laine; Writer Juha Nevalainen (based on the novel by Väinö Linna); Cinematographers Osmo Harkimo, Antero Ruuhonen, Olavi Tuomi and Pentti Unho; Starring Kosti Klemelä, Heikki Savolainen, Reino Tolvanen; Length 169 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Tuesday 29 January 2019.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)

One of the more overlooked biopics of recent years was about the creator of the Wonder Woman character, which was released to capitalise on the DC Comics tie-in movie, but explored very different territory. It’s a lovely evocation of an era, and of unconventional sexuality which comes under misguided public scrutiny.


I love a good love story, and this one may namecheck its Harvard professor (played by Luke Evans) in the title, the creator of the Wonder Woman character, but it’s really about the two women in his life, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and Olive (Bella Heathcote). As a piece of filmmaking, it’s every bit as burnished and handsomely mounted as any other period biopic (Hidden Figures say), but where it excels (like that film) is the quality of the performances, particularly that of Rebecca Hall, who is fantastic as Elizabeth, moving convincingly through a range of emotional responses over the course of her character’s life, as I did while watching her and this film. Solid, humanist stuff capturing something about the power dynamics in relationships — however unconventional this one may have been.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Angela Robinson; Cinematographer Bryce Fortner; Starring Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Leicester Square Studios, London, Sunday 12 November 2017.

Some Films by Women of the LA Rebellion

The so-called “LA Rebellion” was a movement of sorts that arose amongst African-American filmmakers enrolled at UCLA’s School of Film, Theatre and Television in the 1970s, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and US involvement in the Vietnam War. Their work was challenging the mainstream cinema, which certainly at that time — and you could make an argument for even now — remained a largely closed industry, in the process expanding the range of visual representations of the Black experience in the United States. The most well-known filmmakers to come from this movement remain the men: Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima, most notably. However, there were also a large number of women making films within this movement, some of whom would go on to work elsewhere in the film industry, but none of whom were ever given much of a chance beyond the film school.

Probably the best known of the women associated with the LA Rebellion has been Julie Dash, whose 1991 film Daughters of the Dust may be the single work most associated with the movement, but even she was not given the chance to direct many films (aside from some made-for-TV films). One of her earliest works is the short dance film Four Women (1975), which may be seven minutes of interpretative dance, but there’s beauty and grace, fabric and texture, hair and body, power and defiance in this dance, and in the Nina Simone song that soundtracks it. She followed it a couple of years later with Diary of an African Nun (1977, pictured above), which has a beautiful quality even in the imperfect decaying 8mm grain as it survives in a restored (as much as possible) print. Based on a story by Alice Walker, the film has a dreamy poetic quality that appears as if through a haze, with its central character finding it difficult to reconcile herself to her religious calling. Probably her finest film prior to Daughters is Illusions (1982, pictured at the top of this post), which may be little more than half an hour, but packs a lot into its World War II-era story of Mignon (Lonette McKee), a woman passing for white in a film studio’s production office. Mignon meets a darker-skinned woman employed to dub white women’s vocals in the pictures. The film nimbly enacts the way that race is deployed and erased, sometimes literally (here represented by an army censor), as well as the complex interactions between representation and reality. Plus, it’s beautifully shot and acted.

Another key figure in the movement is Alile Sharon Larkin, who has spent most of her career as an educator, with scandalously few directing credits. Her first student film was The Kitchen (1975), which touches on issues that are still very present and relevant in our own day — topics, indeed, that dominate a lot of the discourse I see online about the treament of women (particularly Black women and other women of colour). In this film, for example, there’s a sense that Black women are put in institutions and stigmatised with mental health issues for being different within mainstream white society. There’s a lot of play with hair in that respect, and the main character seems to be traumatised by memories of her natural hair being tortured into place with red hot irons, which leads to her donning a wig, directly linked to her being placed into care. These themes are undoubtedly even more visceral to those who live within these beauty constraints, and despite being under seven minutes in length, Larkin’s film captures this well. Like Dash, Larkin went on to make a longer work a few years later with A Different Image (1982, pictured above). There’s a certain earnestness, perhaps borne of the era in which it was made or the seriousness of its intentions, but this is an affecting 50-minute drama about the way that sexualised images in the environment affect socialisation between men and women. The film is never heavy-handed in the way it deploys this theme, with passing images contextualised by the men looking at them — at first, easy to laugh off, like a young boy laughing at the sight of our leading lady’s underwear, or her (male) work colleague’s interactions with another of his friends (who ostentatiously reads Playboy and wants to know if his friend has got some action yet). Progressively these become darker and more troubling, and the film continues to hint at an inability of men to see beyond women’s sexual attributes. It’s nicely acted and well shot by Charles Burnett.

Another woman within the LA Rebellion is Barbara McCullough, who went on to a career as a production manager (particularly within visual effects), a little older than some of her contemporaries, but who made a number of short films at the time. The one I’ve seen is Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (1979). There’s real beauty to this short experimental film, beautifully restored on 35mm, as a woman interacts with a sparse, impoverished environment. It’s all fairly oblique but ends in an act of purifying defiance.

Among the lesser-known figures was Anita W. Addison, who went on to direct TV shows in the 1990s as well as getting involved in production, but who died in 2004. I’m not clear if her short film Eva’s Man (1976) was made under the auspices of UCLA, but her name is linked with the LA Rebellion (at least on the Wikipedia page). Her film obliquely tells the story of a woman who kills her husband, with flashbacks to give a sense of why she might have done it, and sustains a nice claustrophobic atmosphere with a bit of free jazz on the soundtrack.

One final filmmaker I wanted to mention is Malvonna Bellenger, who later worked in local television and the recording industry, and who died from breast cancer in 2003. Her short film Rain (Nyesha) (1978) is ostensibly about a rainy LA day, though it’s not exactly about rain per se. Instead it’s about the possibility of a change coming, washing things away that existed before. And it’s about a young woman who seems from her voiceover to be disconsolate who finds herself becoming more certain as the rain comes down and Coltrane plays in the background. It finds its tone somewhere between elegiac and active, and it sticks to it.

Continue reading “Some Films by Women of the LA Rebellion”

وقائع سنين الجمر Waqai Sinin al-Jamri (aka Chronique des années de braise, Chronicle of the Years of Fire, 1975)

Algeria, even more than many of its North African neighbours, has been a subject of a lot of filmmaking, thanks to the Wars of Independence from France that tore the country apart in the 1950s and 1960s, a cause that galvanised a generation of French politically-engaged filmmakers who came of age in the New Wave and were receptive to the radical student politics of May 1968. The struggle is most famously covered in The Battle of Algiers (1966), but there are relatively few films told from the Algerian side. One such film, a work garlanded with plenty of awards and which is often found on lists of the greatest Arab cinema, is the one I cover below.


A grand, sweeping, widescreen epic of Algerian liberation from colonialist oppression which covers several decades up to the wars of independence in the 1950s. The film primarily follows a village farmer called Ahmed (Yorgo Voyagis, a Greek actor), who leaves his village for the larger local city with a family, and suffers various privations, especially during World War II. Their lives are almost entirely cut off from Europe, so the wars of France against Germany seem like nothing more than an opportunity to replace their despised colonial masters. Still, they are sucked in, and return to famine and typhoid, at which point a man arrives, banished to this remote outpost, and quickly starts to foment further revolutionary consciousness amongst the people. This is a new restoration commissioned by the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival and which hopefully will bring this Palme d’Or-winning Algerian film back to wider prominence. The director’s preferred cut is 157 minutes, and has some of that sweeping, epic, desert quality of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), as well as a potent message of fighting against brutal oppression, but it remains always grounded in the small-scale story of Ahmed and his family.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina محمد الأخضر حمينة; Writers Rachid Boudjedra رشيد بوجدرة Tewfik Fares توفيق فارس and Lakhdar-Hamina; Cinematographer Marcello Gatti; Starring Yorgo Voyagis Γιώργος Βογιατζής, Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina; Length 157 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Friday 29 June 2018.

Criterion Sunday 234: Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1979)

I do sort of understand what’s going on here in this strange, carnivalesque, alternately gleeful and bleak evocation of pre-war and wartime Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Its protagonist is a young child, Oskar (David Bennent), who has foreseen his future and decided he wants to remain in the body of a 3-year-old (well, an 11-year-old for the purposes of the actor anyway), using the drum of the title to beat out his own tune as he first reacts against the encroaching Nazification and then finds himself dragged in as well. There are all kinds of sprightly filmmaking touches, the hand-cranked sped-up film of the intro flashing back many decades, the absurdist plot and character details, and of course the ridiculous perversity of this teenager-in-a-child’s-body growing, learning, reading and falling in love. Yet I never can quite connect with him or care about his story: he’s a nasty character — and yes, of course he is, that entirely makes sense — and his story is one with parallels in the bleak hopelessness of the Nazi era, but his childish, imp-like quality is just incessant, and it becomes grating. I never much take to magic realism or carnivalesque absurdity, and there’s plenty of the latter on show here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Volker Schlöndorff; Writers Schlöndorff, Jean-Claude Carrière and Franz Seitz (based on the novel by Günter Grass); Cinematographer Igor Luther; Starring David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler; Length 163 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 1 January 2019.

Criterion Sunday 228: Salvatore Giuliano (1962)

There’s a lot of gorgeous style to this film, all high-contrast black-and-white starkness, an almost documentary-like sense of its Sicilian landscapes, not to mention the evocative faces of its protagonists. It’s a period story made in the 60s about a post-war gangster and rebel laid low by the forces of the law and the mafia, but it feels like it’s made contemporaneously, and the director has a solid control of his actors. I found the narrative difficult to get hold of, as it jumps back and forth in time fairly liberally, while the titular figure is rarely actually seen except when dead. I wanted to like this a lot more than I did, but perhaps it just needs the right frame of mind and the right screening to fall into place.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Francesco Rosi; Writers Rosi, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Enzo Provenzale and Franco Solinas; Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo; Starring Salvo Randone, Frank Wolff; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 September 2018.

Criterion Sunday 146: Летят журавли Letyat zhuravli (The Cranes Are Flying, 1957)

It’s worrying to recall that I’ve put off seeing this film for so long (a couple of decades since I studied film and first learned about it) because I just thought it looked a bit dull and earnest, in a typically propagandistic Soviet sort of way. Anyone who’s seen it will know this is totally the wrong idea to take of such a glorious work of almost pure cinema. Indeed, it far more presages the French New Wave in its lyrical flights of fancy, its crisp editing and remarkable monochrome cinematography. It’s a love story set against the backdrop of World War II — familiar enough — but it fights shy of any too obvious symbolism, and though you can somewhat predict how things will go, it also confounds some of those expectations. It really is a masterpiece.

Criterion Extras: [NB this section applies to the original DVD, although it has since been reissued on Blu-ray with further extras] Simply nothing, except an essay in the booklet. I’ve been critical of these bare-bones releases in the past (the sort of thing one imagines they started the Eclipse imprint to do), but it’s such a startling and beautiful film it almost needs nothing aside from a clean transfer of the print — which it has.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Mikhail Kalatozov Михаи́л Калато́зов; Writer Viktor Rozov Виктор Розов (based on his play); Cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky Серге́й Урусевский; Starring Tatiana Samoilova Татья́на Само́йлова, Aleksey Batalov Алексе́й Бата́лов; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 February 2017.

Their Finest (2016)

I hardly expected to like this. It looks like the kind of unadventurous, softly patriotic nonsense that leads to dull dirges like that Vera Brittain adaptation with Alicia Vikander in it whose title I’ve already forgotten (it’s Testament of Youth now that I look it up), or thin jaunts like that one with Bel Powley as Princess Margaret and a bunch of other less enjoyable people that I sort of half-remember the title of (A Royal Night Out, it turns out). Well anyway, I might actually remember the title of Their Finest because I generally found it to be superior, and though it’s hardly a film for the ages, it does have a spirited Gemma Arterton playing Catrin, a Welsh screenwriter, with a scene-stealing Bill Nighy as, um… Bill Nighy, I guess (he plays an actor). A love story is present (not with Nighy, I should point out), but it feels to me that this film is about more than the romance, even if there is a certain romanticism to the idea of wartime England. I was manipulated duly by the film, overlong as it was (and that despite an actual line in the film about movies ideally being an hour and a half long!), and I feel fine about it, for it was all very jolly.

Their Finest film posterCREDITS
Director Lone Scherfig; Writer Gaby Chiappe (based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans); Cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov; Starring Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Sam Claflin; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Sunday 7 May 2017.

The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980)

There was a real passion to tell untold women’s stories coming out of the 70s, not in a flashy way but just, as here, on a relatively recent but largely overlooked subject, using archival clips, period music and interviews with the surviving women while they were still around to tell their stories. And they do that, very well. The film takes its name from an iconic figure of the woman factory worker used during World War II, and the women interviewed here tell of their recruitment to the war effort in factories and shipyards et al., then about the issues they faced around discrimination and (for the black workers) racism. The filmmaker cuts in some smug 40s patriarchal voiceover from a contemporary media source to tell us how hard women found the work (with such choice snippets as the women being “not used to working so hard”), as the women recall how after 8-10 hours on the assembly lines they had to come home to cook dinner for their husbands (if around) and families. There’s plenty of other recollections like this, and then about the struggle to keep the same kind of work after the war. It’s all affecting because it’s direct and from the women themselves. It also remains a fascinating story.

The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter film posterCREDITS
Director Connie Field; Cinematographers Bonnie Friedman, Robert Handley, Emiko Omori and Cathy Zheutlin; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 8 May 2017.

Criterion Sunday 131: Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains aka Closely Observed Trains, 1966)

A simple film in many ways, it takes the form of a provincial sex comedy as a young man serving as a train station guard for reasons of avoiding doing any hard work tries but mostly fails to be more successful with women. But there’s also a war going on, and Czechoslovakia is controlled by the Nazis, so that becomes an increasingly important part of what the film is trying to do — equating, at some level, the coming of age story with the work of the resistance. In retrospect, it could hardly end any other way, and it’s reminiscent of the previous Criterion Collection film (The Shop on Main Street) in locating all the dramas and horrors of wartime life amongst everyday characters and in mundane situations. Also, there’s a memorable rubber stamping scene.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jiří Menzel (based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal); Cinematographer Jaromír Šofr; Starring Václav Neckář, Josef Somr; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 October 2016.