Criterion Sunday 542: Antichrist (2009)

I know that Lars von Trier wants us to hate his movies, because he wants us to have that authentic visceral reaction to them, whether it be love or hate. That seems fairly clear both from his pronouncements as from the films themselves, and therefore I want to respond by saying I found his film — surely one of the films that most potently distils everything that he wants to assault the viewer with — as merely middling. However, I cannot lie: I disliked it a lot. Not that it wasn’t acted with great power by both Gainsbourg and Dafoe, who are pretty much the only humans we see for much of the film (aside from their infant son who dies in the prologue and whose death hangs over the entire psychodramatic dynamic that ensues). Not that it wasn’t filmed with customary elegance by Anthony Dod Mantle. Not that there weren’t elements that worked well and could be appreciated. But just that constant assault of images and ideas that serve no purpose other than to evoke grand emotions. Well, I’m glad people can embrace those and I don’t doubt that it’s all very intentionally done. I could dispassionately render a critique on its artistry. But I feel like a more honest response — and perhaps the one that Trier would prefer — is just: f*ck that guy. I didn’t hate his film, and maybe even one day I can come to it with understanding, but I don’t have to watch it again, and I’m glad about that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lars von Trier; Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; Starring Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 18 June 2022.

Talentime (2009)

Part of my own relationship with Netflix is not just to watch the mediocre romcoms it seems to endlessly generate, or the addictively trashy TV shows like Selling Sunset (for which I can effectively turn off my brain), but also to actively search out films directed by women, or from places or film cultures I’m less familiar with, which is how I got to this Malaysian film. Director Yasmin Ahmad died unexpectedly from a stroke at age 51, the same year this film was released, but she has an intriguing career, including studying politics in Newcastle, employed variously as a banker, a marketing exec, and an advertising director but also — and, inevitably, I quote Wikipedia — “she moonlighted as a blues singer and pianist by night”. I want to know more about that! Anyway, her last film is pretty good, and a few other ones are on Netflix too, so probably worth checking out.


Despite the English language title, this is a Malay film about a school’s talent competition, apparently a national series (whether in real life or within the world of the film). Indeed, part of the film is just dealing with the actual range of languages and cultures that exist in Malaysia (whether the broad Yorkshire accent of one grandmother, the Indian family with their deaf son Mahesh, the Chinese Muslim maid who is initially discriminated against by a posh Malay relation, and every other permutation of background).

I get the feeling that Malaysian viewers will get a lot more out of this in terms of references, but it still resonates because the story is pretty easy to relate to, being one in which a number of different school kids are going through their own family dramas (most notably Mahesh as mentioned above, but also Melur and Hafiz, the last of whom has a dying mother in hospital), but who all pull together at the talent competition. There are moments when this threatens to be a mawkish TV movie but mostly it avoids that by not overexplaining the situations and just letting the emotional moments linger quietly. It’s the last film by its director before her own untimely death, and she has a deft touch at delineating all these characters and finding a way to unite them despite everything.

Talentime (2009)CREDITS
Director/Writer Yasmin Ahmad; Cinematographer Keong Low; Starring Mahesh Jugal Kishor, Pamela Chong, Mohd Syafie Naswip; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Thursday 11 March 2021.

Global Cinema 12: The Bahamas – Children of God (2009)

Though the island locations of The Bahamas have been seen in any number of 60s and 70s James Bond films, in Jaws: The Revenge and Splash, amongst many others, there isn’t much of an indigenous film industry to speak of. A local director who has made something of a name for himself, particular of the LGBT festival circuit, is Kareem Mortimer, whose 2009 film Children of God is my chosen film to represent The Bahamas. It represents a noble attempt to confront LGBT struggles and prejudices on the islands.


Bahamian flagCommonwealth of The Bahamas
population 385,600 | capital Nassau (274k) | largest cities Nassau, Freeport (47k), West End (13k), Coopers Town (9k), Marsh Harbour (6k) | area 13,878 km2 | religion Protestant Christianity (80%), Roman Catholicism (15%) | official language English | major ethnicity Afro-Bahamian (91%) | currency Bahamian Dollar ($) [BSD] | internet .bs

A country taking up much of the almost 700 islands of the Lucayan Archipelago, between Cuba and Florida, with the capital located on the island of New Providence (where more than 70% of the country’s population is based). The name comes from the Taíno phrase ba ha ma for “big upper middle land” or else from the Spanish baja mar for “shallow water”, but either way the definite article is formally part of the country’s name. The Taíno were the earliest inhabitants, coming from South America around the 9th century CE, and came to be known as the Lucayan people. Christopher Columbus may have made landfall in The Bahamas (it is disputed which island precisely); thereafter the Spanish were in control but their main involvement was to enslave many of the native people. The British arrived in the mid-17th century and settled first on the island of Eleuthera, and later New Providence, before granting proprietory control to the English Province of Carolina under whose rule the islands became a pirate’s haven, before the British wrested back direct control. Liberated slaves were resettled on the Bahamas after the British ended their own direct involvement in the slave trade. After World War II, a strong movement for independence formed, and this was achieved on 10 July 1973. The British monarch is retained as head of state, with rule by a Prime Minister, head of the party with the most seats in the House of Assembly.

There is hardly a strong film industry in The Bahamas, though it has been used as a backdrop and filming location to plenty of foreign productions. Local filmmaking starts to take off in the 1990s and there has been a slow trickle of films since that time.


Children of God (2009)

Needless to say I’ve not seen many Bahamian films (if any; though certainly I imagine I’ve seen plenty that are partially shot there), but I can buy the divisions that are at the heart of this film. It focuses on Jonny (Johnny Ferro), a scrawny white art student who is sent away by his art instructor to go put some emotion into his technically competent paintings (we don’t actually see his work, which is probably for the best), and while off on a remote island he meets Romeo (Stephen Tyrone Williams). The complications that ensue are amongst family and the local community: people are agitating against gay people and gay rights, while the local pastor is flirting with young men, and his wife is trying to put her life together around this. There are a lot of intersecting struggles, and sometimes the ways they are linked can be a little clunky, while some of the confrontation feels forced. However, this is a film with its heart in the right place, making its points about tolerance in this small island community.

Children of God film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kareem Mortimer; Cinematographer Ian Bloom; Starring Johnny Ferro, Stephen Tyrone Williams, Margaret Laurena Kemp; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 1 August 2020.

Two Short Documentaries by Lynne Sachs: The Last Happy Day (2009) and The Washing Society (2018)

One of the special focus strands of the Sheffield Doc/Fest online programme in 2020 was the experimental documentary filmmaker Lynne Sachs, who has an extensive body of work across a number of different documentary interests. I watched two of her films out of the handful made available (some of the rest are still online for festival attendees, so I am determined to catch up with them), and present reviews below — or, maybe I should say, more impressionistic observances as I cannot claim they are as deeply considered as I would like.


The Washing Society (2018)

This isn’t a long film, clocking in at about 45 minutes, but it’s a curious blend of documentary and staged fiction. It films a number of New York laundromats, showing their working environments and including some comments by a number of the workers. However, it starts with a Black woman speaking an historical text and then places her in the space of a laundromat opening for the day, and throughout the film her presence functions as a sort of historical commentary making clear the racialised nature of this work, which is somehow so intangible and invisible to so many people. As the film progresses, the testimonies start to become more like monologues, rather more clearly delivered by actors, itself eventually seguing into a musical performance piece on the machines themselves.

The Washing Society film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Lynne Sachs and Lizzie Olesker; Cinematographer Sean Hanley; Length 44 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Saturday 4 July 2020.


The Last Happy Day (2009)

I find it sometimes very easy to criticise documentaries for following a standard talking heads format, but of course Lynne Sachs doesn’t even approach anything resembling the clichés of the form. This medium-length piece does, however, use occasional on-screen captions to contextualise her story of a distant relative, the Hungarian Jew Sandor Lenard (aka Alexander Lenard), who fled shortly before the outbreak of World War II and eventually found himself in Brazil, where he undertook Latin translations, including of Winnie the Pooh (sorry, Winnie Ille Pu). That said, her experimental practice means that it’s difficult to pick out everything that’s going on here, and I imagine wider viewing of her oeuvre would help more in that respect, but there seems to be an idea of the painful ruptures of war and exile being healed at least somewhat by language, or perhaps the idea of translation (given that the language in question is hardly a widely shared one). It’s a family story, too, so children in Sachs’ own family appear on screen to read Lenard’s letters or comment on them (very eloquently, given their age). These are ideas that come out, not inaccessibly, but in a dense mixture of text and image and voice.

The Last Happy Day film posterCREDITS
Director Lynne Sachs; Cinematographers Sachs and Ethan Mass; Length 38 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Tuesday 21 July 2020.

Global Cinema 7: Argentina – The Fish Child (2009)

Argentina is one of the largest countries in the world and so has a wealth of cinema stretching back to its very earliest roots. There was a strong political cinema in the 1960s, most notably The Hour of the Furnaces from 1968. Since then, international auteurs have cropped up, not least Lucrecia Martel (one of my favourite filmmakers), along with a host of films by women or dealing with LGBT themes, amongst many other things.


Argentine flagArgentine Republic
population 44,939,000 | capital Buenos Aires (3.1m) | largest cities Buenos Aires, Córdoba (1.5m), Rosario (1.4m), Mendoza (1.1m), San Miguel de Tucumán (868k) | area 2,780,400 km2 | religion Roman Catholicism (63%) | official language none (Spanish) | major ethnicity European/Mestizo (97%) | currency Peso ($) [ARS] | internet .ar

Mountainous to the west, and bordering the Atlantic on the east, Argentina is the eighth largest country in the world, second to Brazil in South America, and with a huge amount of biodiversity. The name comes from the Italian for “silver coloured”, as it was believed by early European explorers to have silver mountains, and it used to be called “the Argentine” in English. Human habitation can be traced back to the Paleolithic era, though relatively sparsely populated by hunter-gatherer and farming tribes. Amerigo Vespucci brought the first Europeans to the region in the early-16th century, and Spanish colonisation continued throughout that century. A revolution in 1810 signalled a war of independence, declared on 9 July 1816. Liberal economic policies promoted a huge amount of European immigration, making it one of the world’s most wealthy and well-educated countries by the late-19th century. Following WW2, during which the country was mostly neutral, Juan Perón seized power and nationalised industry, bringing in social welfare and women’s suffrage (thanks to his wife Eva), but power swung back to a military leadership who pursued a brutal policy of state terrorism against leftists as power shifted back and forth. An ill-judged war against Britain in the Falklands led to the toppling of the military leadership, and a move back to democracy. The head of government is the President, alongside a Senate and Congress, overseeing 23 provinces and one autonomous city (the capital).

Given the country’s wealth, its cinema has long been one of the most developed on the continent, with a Lumière screening as early as 1896 prompting Argentinian filmmaking soon after. A ‘golden age’ followed in the 1930s, the pinnacle of indigenous production, though it dwindled under Perön. A ‘new cinema’ arose in the late-1960s, an unequivocally political and militant cinema, though there were more commercial strands of work and these were prominent in the 1970s when censorship and repression was at its height. There has been a resurgence in cinema of all kinds since the 1990s, sometimes called the New Argentine Cinema.


El niño pez (The Fish Child, 2009)

There’s quite a bit going on in here, both in terms of the mix of genre motifs, but also the complicated structure, and the layering of realism with magically surreal touches. These latter elements, which are tied to the film’s title, are a way of rendering poetic something that is painful and troubling — as magical realism so often does — within a story that broadly skirts around the issue of class in Argentina but in a ‘lovers on the run’ framework. Lala (Inés Efron) is the teenaged daughter of a rich (ethnically white) family, who is in love with the family’s maid Ailin (Mariela Vitale), a couple of years older than her, and naturally they plot to get away and live together, free from the various things tying them down. The structure of the film is then a way to reveal these things slowly to the audience, as first we understand a crime has been committed, and then who did it and why, and some of the reasons why the characters have come to this place. I’m not sure it’s always entirely successful, but it’s a heady blend of styles and influences, which constrains its LGBTQ themes within an artfully genre-tinged framework.

The Fish Child film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lucía Puenzo; Cinematographer Rolo Pulpeiro; Starring Inés Efron, Mariela Vitale; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Monday 22 July 2019.

El último verano de La Boyita (The Last Summer of La Boyita, 2009)

A number of the Argentinian films I’ll be covering this week deal with gender issues, in what I feel (albeit from my particular viewpoint) as being fairly sensitively-handled. Still, it’s interesting to see this country’s cinema deal with sexuality in these ways, but it’s a large and disparate country whose culture pulls in many directions.


Sparse as coming-of-age films (or indeed any films?) about intersex people are, I already feel like Argentinian filmmakers have form on this, given there’s XXY as well a couple of years before this one. This story takes the viewpoint of the young girl Jorgelina (or Georgie, played by Guadalupe Alonso), who may be cisgendered but feels excluded from the world of grown-up women, as her sister is a few years older and starting to show interest in boys. This is how the first half of the film goes, really, as Georgie, having been a close playmate to her sister, is more and more sidelined during an annual family trip to the rural area of the title, and we see her just kicking around the countryside and the local farms, where she has another friend, Mario (Nicolás Treise), who seems to be going through his own coming-of-age. And that’s where the story takes a turn towards the gender issues, which I think are handled fairly sensitively: there’s a sense we get of Mario also being slightly set apart from his older peers, but there’s never any heavy-handedness around how he identifies, just these discreet scenes with Georgie’s doctor father, and when he tries to explain Mario’s physiological differences, she (and the soundtrack) just puts her fingers in her ears to drown him out. It’s all very gentle and shows a great sense of place, the camera never too insistently prying into young people or their growing bodies — and this may be where having a woman director makes a real difference.

The Last Summer of La Boyita film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Julia Solomonoff; Cinematographer Lucio Bonelli; Starring Guadalupe Alonso, Nicolás Treise, Mirella Pascual; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 14 March 2019.

Four Underappreciated Films by Hirokazu Koreeda: Distance (2001), Hana (2006), Air Doll (2009) and The Third Murder (2017)

The filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda has been turning out warmly-received films since his fiction feature debut Maborosi in 1995. Many of them — certainly, it seems, all of the most acclaimed — are warm-hearted family dramas, whether dealing with children directly as in I Wish (2011), with parents of kids in Like Father, Like Son (2013) or with young people in Our Little Sister (2015). However in many ways that’s only half his output, as he’s also made plenty of films that don’t fit quite so neatly into this framework. I was planning on writing a post about maybe one of these, but then I realised I had a vast cache of reviews of films that really aren’t very well known by this famous director, and I wonder how many great directors could have made great films if they’d been given as many chances. For one example not even covered here, there’s his latest English/French-language The Truth (to be reviewed here later this week), but there are also these four films reviewed below: a film about terrorists; a period drama; a sex drama; and a legal thriller.

Continue reading “Four Underappreciated Films by Hirokazu Koreeda: Distance (2001), Hana (2006), Air Doll (2009) and The Third Murder (2017)”

Julie & Julia (2009)

As long as we’re watching films on Netflix, there is a rich seam of upbeat, rosy-tinted content, whether banal seasonal movies, romcoms, stand-up specials or the singular work of American master Nora Ephron, whose last film was this curious tale of two women divided by time but united by a love of very fatty food.


I am decidedly not someone who is ever going to eat any of the food seen on-screen in this film; of all the major world cuisines, I sometimes feel as if classical French cooking is about the least likely to get in my belly (at this point in my life, now that I’m vegan). However, like growing up atheist in a nominally Christian country, you can’t help but avoid its influence over your everyday life, and what’s more everyday than eating? Julia Child is, of course, one of the key figures in popularising French cooking in the English-speaking world (well, in America; you could make a case that Elizabeth David was more influential in the UK), but it’s her presence on TV that probably holds the most appeal to an actor as expressively imitative as Meryl Streep. Truly her scenes — ably supported by an always-watchable Stanley Tucci — are the backbone of this film, with all due respect to Amy Adams and Chris Messina, who are also likeable but aren’t Meryl and Stanley. Of course, true life stories aside, Nora Ephron is the key creative woman in this enterprise, and her filmmaking can be divisive, but I have always broadly liked her films, and this one is no exception. It’s a soufflé, a warmly-coloured confection with glowing kitchens to match any in a Nancy Meyers movie, but it’s also a film with a generous warmth towards its subjects and which is every bit as incisive about upper-middle-class New York marriages as anything else you can find on Netflix right now, and probably more easily rewatchable too.

Julie & Julia film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nora Ephron (based on the memoir by Julie Powell, and the autobiography My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme); Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt; Starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 10 December 2019.

Independencia (aka Independence, 2009)

Following on from my post about John Gianvito’s documentary diptych about the Philippines, which touches on Filipino independence in the late-19th cenutry, another film set touching on the same historical events was made by a Filipino filmmaker in 2009. It has a distinctive style, different from that of his more famous compatriot Lav Diaz, but captures something about how the past intertwines with the present.


There’s a strange and haunting atmosphere imbued with the uncanny that haunts a lot of Guy Maddin’s similar pastiches on silent films, but with more poise and mystery. For a film so short it also nevertheless reminded me of Lav Diaz’s (much longer) film A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016), in that both are set around the turn of the 20th century, at the time just after the Philippines gained its independence from Spain, and which spend a lot of time in lush jungle terrains, though Independencia brings up the American occupation that came soon after independence (and whose effects are arguably still felt, as John Gianvito covered in his documentary epic, mentioned above). What sets Martin’s film apart is the style, which mimics that of early cinema, shot of sets using the sometimes harsh and inconstant natural light of the sun, lending that uncanny quality I mentioned earlier, a sense of a film dealing with a distant past and yet one which nevertheless persists.

Independencia film posterCREDITS
Director Raya Martin; Writers Martin and Ramon Sarmiento; Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Tetchie Agbayani, Sid Lucero, Alessandra de Rossi; Length 77 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 November 2017.

Bran Nue Dae (2009)

A friend suggested my recent Australian cinema week was lacking in bright and cheerful musicals, and short of re-watching something by Baz Luhrmann, this musical from ten years ago fits the bill rather nicely, and also focuses on Aboriginal communities.


This isn’t a perfect film: it has an underlying cheesiness to it, a sort of sentimental cheerfulness that sometimes seems at odds with its story, and yet it’s at heart delightful and criticising it would feel wilfully cynical. The film is based on a stage musical, though it certainly doesn’t hide that — and the way characters will break into song and choreographed dance is one of the pleasures of the form, after all. It presents Aboriginal Australian lives in the late-60s in what feels like an ahistorical way, but it also doesn’t hide some of the unfairness of the way they’re treated as a group: it just couches this in a gaudily-coloured musical ensemble treatment. This is a film about characters who have all the same generic desires as American teenagers in films made 10 years or more before this one is set (the concession to the late-60s moment is a VW van driven by two hippies, although the young man’s German accent is surely one of the worst in recent memory), but set in the Australian outback. There are times when the forced cheerfulness feels so positively sugary that I felt a bit queasy, but I can’t fault its heart and the colourful staging by director Rachel Perkins and DoP Andrew Lesnie.

Bran Nue Dae film posterCREDITS
Director Rachel Perkins; Writers Reg Cribb and Perkins (based on the musical by Jimmy Chi); Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie; Starring Rocky McKenzie, Ernie Dingo, Jessica Mauboy, Geoffrey Rush; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 23 September 2019.