Niña mamá (Mother-Child, 2019)

My blog’s theme last week was documentaries screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest because that festival has gone online with a select programme this month. I’ve already watched a number of films through their portal, including this Argentinian film about young mothers. I’ll try and write a round-up of my favourites when the festival has closed (in mid-July), but in the meantime I’ll be wrapping up my Argentina theme week tomorrow with the Global Cinema entry for that country.


A solid observational documentary which in soft and muted black-and-white shows young women (some extremely young indeed) talking to hospital gynaecologists about their pregnancies, the various issues they’ve had with spouses, whether they’ve had the support of their parents, and touching obliquely at least on their lives, and the futures they imagine for themselves. The unseen women doing the interviews gently ask about whether those who are carrying their children to term have considered “interrupting” their pregnancies (some of them have had more than one child, though all of them are teenagers), while others are going through that and express a complicated range of responses. Neither the interviewers nor the film makes any judgements on any of the women, but we get a sense perhaps of the focus of sex education and lack of funding available to the hospital and its staff. It’s not always sad, because there’s such a range of experiences on show, but it’s reflective on the situations too many young women find themselves in, and the way their (lack of) options can define so many lives.

Mother-Child film posterCREDITS
Director Andrea Testa; Writers Francisco Márquez and Testa; Cinematographer Gustavo Schiaffino; Length 66 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Thursday 11 June 2020.

Romantic Comedy (2019)

At the lighter end of any festival’s line-up (not least Sheffield Doc/Fest’s) are the films about films. 2018 saw Shirkers, though that investigation of a lost bit of cinema history blended personal essay with criticism and went rather dark in the process. A different approach is taken by this film premiered last year, that provides a bit of cinematic film criticism, entirely made out of clips from the genre suggested by the film’s title.


This personal essay film/reflection on the titular genre borrows a lot of its approach from Beyond Clueless (2014, directed by Charlie Shackleton né Lyne), from the clip-based structure, to the poster design right down to the musical collaborators (plus Mr Shackleton shows up as one of the commentators, which is one way that it differs from that film at least, which relied instead on a single narrator). It may not offer any insights that aren’t obvious enough to anyone who watches the films (that they glorify a lot of extremely creepy male behaviour, and pander to the patriarchy) but of course it’s nice to hear it all expressed in one place. It even, thankfully, moves into what is compelling about romcoms, why they continue to be made and gain a lot of success, though I did appreciate the way it used the genre’s format to pull in some other titles that aren’t usually considered as romcoms. Some of the use of the commentators’ voices was to speak to experiences outside that of our director/writer Elizabeth Sankey, namely those of women of colour and gay men, though those sequences were touched on only very briefly towards the end. What becomes clear is that the bulk of the form has long been dedicated to heteronormative, white, able-bodied, cisgender, middle-class desire, so while counterexamples exist (for at least some of those categories), the strength of the genre in future will rely on a far more equal acknowledgement of all kinds of love.

Romantic Comedy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Elizabeth Sankey; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Saturday 16 May 2020.

Hail Satan? (2019)

I’ve been featuring films shown at Sheffield Doc/Fest on my blog this week, as the festival’s online 2020 edition is currently live. The last edition premiered a number of high-profile documentaries for UK audiences, including the Doc/Audience Award winner For Sama and the Tim Hetherington Award winner One Child Nation, amongst others. A film which gained a cinematic release fairly swiftly after the festival and which takes a different tonal approach to serious societal issues is this one, ostensibly about Satanic practice in the United States (or at least, one branch of it), but actually about civil liberties, a wider discussion that’s always relevant.


This is an amusing documentary that doesn’t take itself too seriously, largely because it’s about a movement that likewise isn’t very serious — at least, not about Satanism itself (ironically enough). Really it’s about raising social consciousness for issues of real freedom (of abortion rights, against transphobia, and of course the rights to religious freedom that require the separation of church and state), and so mostly frequently we see the Satanists protesting outside government buildings trying to protect and enshrine rights that go far beyond Satanism per se. While the film likely doesn’t reflect the variety of Satanic religious practice (I’m sure at least some of it is undertaken earnestly), it’s a rare work that deals with the happier, more productive end of trolling for a change.

Hail Satan? film posterCREDITS
Director Penny Lane; Cinematographer Naiti Gámez; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 25 August 2019.

Two Netflix Films about Mediæval Kings in the British Isles: Outlaw/King (2018) and The King (2019)

Although Robert the Bruce (whose story is rendered in Outlaw/King) and Henry V (of The King) were two historical figures whose lives never overlapped, they did live within a few generations of one another (Henry was born around 60 years after Bruce died), and both lived in what was then a divided island, though part of that was down to the actions of Bruce himself. Neither film can probably claim to be great history — they are more invested in generic tropes of heroism and resistance, while The King isn’t even based on the history but on Shakespeare’s rendering of it some century and a half later — but both illuminate some of the ways that history is used and abused, also adding to that popular idea that Mediæval times were all about grim misery, mud and gore.

Continue reading “Two Netflix Films about Mediæval Kings in the British Isles: Outlaw/King (2018) and The King (2019)”

Dark Waters (2019)

As I hope is evident in my week focusing on films about history, the engagement with historical events is not one that is just about a discreet set of events separated away in the past. The forces that have shaped history continue into the present, as their legacies are manifested in behaviour and actions, but sometimes too filmic engagement with history is a prod to current events. For example the events portrayed in this film, which stretch back decades into the mid-20th century, are ongoing; even the legal case it documents hasn’t been concluded. These are urgent issues that will have an effect on our future, and so the film is used as a way to make those decisions more relevant and personable. (And as usual in such cases, the filmmakers have got Mark Ruffalo in for that.)


Todd Haynes has made some of my favourite films in the last few decades but I can’t claim this one is up there with them, largely because it cleaves so heavily to a very specific genre formula, and it’s not a genre I hugely love (the legal procedural thriller). It’s one of those issues-driven movies — the ones that Mark Ruffalo certainly seems to have done a few of recently (such as Spotlight) — and it’s all very efficiently despatched. Ruffalo plays a lawyer taking a huge American chemical company (DuPont) to task for the untold damage they’ve done not just to thousands of people they employed making the chemicals for Teflon, but also those who lived near the plant in West Virgnia, not to mention possibly every single human and living creature on the planet who has been just a little bit poisoned by the actions of them and other massive chemical conglomerates whose only interest — literally, their only apparent interest — has been in protecting the billions of dollars of profits they have been making. The fact that this fight is ongoing even at the time of the film’s making is just part of the reason for it to exist, and though it may not wow anyone as a film, it’s a story that’s worth telling and is gripping in its details all the same.

Dark Waters film posterCREDITS
Director Todd Haynes; Writers Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan (based on the article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich); Cinematographer Edward Lachman; Starring Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Nova, Melbourne, Thursday 5 March 2020.

Monos (2019)

As far as revolutionary cinema goes, Monos is very much more about capturing a mood, an intensity to being a guerrilla in the jungle, rather than trading in any particular or specific history. It’s more of a mood piece, and it worked (for me) very well, although critical opinion I’ve seen has certainly been divided. It’s probably not the exemplar of a ‘cinema of resistance’, but it’s about revolutionaries and the idea of resistance.


As an experience of a film, I really liked this. It has a dreamy intensity to it, which starts out as if amongst the legionaries in Beau travail albeit situated in a mountainous and muddy jungle terrain (rather than the heat of Claire Denis’s film) and with teenage revolutionaries in a sort of Lord of the Flies-type dystopia. The Latin American setting and the guerrilla-style warfare that is being undertaken suggests that they are fighting against state suppression and possibly some kind of American military-industrial nexus of capitalist interests, but honestly I’m just reading all that in based on what I’ve seen of South American liberationist history (as it has been portrayed on film at least), and no specifics are ever touched upon here, undoubtedly quite intentionally. However, it has such a concrete sense of place, and evokes such a tangible mood through the movement of the actors in the setting, and the throbbing Mica Levi score, that it achieves something that feels properly cinematic, though perhaps on reflection it’s more of a suggestion of cinema than something fully achieved. What it does evoke is a scenario that could as easily be science-fiction, making it more Hunger Games than Apocalypse Now. Ultimately it feels like more of a cautionary tale about what happens when trust breaks down amongst a group than about any specific socio-political idea, with the curiously gender-non-specific character of Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura) a particular highlight for me. It must have been an intense shoot.

Monos film posterCREDITS
Director Alejandro Landes; Writers Landes and Alexis Dos Santos; Cinematographer Jasper Wolf; Starring Julianne Nicholson, Moisés Arias, Sofia Buenaventura, Julián Giraldo; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 13 November 2019.

Two Films about the Personal Legacy of Revolutionary Activity: What Walaa Wants (2018) and Born in Evin (2019)

The topic of resistance includes not only stories about revolutionaries but the stories of their legacy and influence, particularly on their children. These two films are about two such children, who may have grown up either surrounded by conflict and in the often painful absence of their parents (as in the Palestinian story of What Walaa Wants) or, at the other extreme, in complete ignorance of their parents and revolutionary activities, having begun a new life in exile away from those traumas (as with the Iranian daughter of revolutionaries living in Germany, in Born in Evin). Neither film can be entirely satisfactory, because it feels like two people grappling with uncertainty about how to exist in the world, given these backgrounds, but both are illuminating about the generational nature of resistance and trauma.

Continue reading “Two Films about the Personal Legacy of Revolutionary Activity: What Walaa Wants (2018) and Born in Evin (2019)”

A Hidden Life (2019)

A discussion that has cropped up once again in political and media circles has been around “antifa”, and every time it happens a lot of people with the same wearied tone have to explain it’s not an organisation, it’s an ethos, a motivating ideal, a praxis and a shared struggle: it is just short for “anti-fascist”. Such struggles can take an explosive, active form, and there are no shortage of World War II movies to illustrate that (though most are Hollywood stories of heroism against the odds). Terrence Malick’s most recent film instead deals with the internal contortions, of morality and faith competing with self-preservation, and the way that just these simple acts of resistance can carry their own dangers. The only thing that “antifa”, such as it is, calls us to do is to resist fascism. All that I can hope is that to continue to do so is something which does not lead to the outcome in today’s film, but as some of the world’s largest countries have taken an active turn towards demagoguery and fascism, that is starting to seem rather more perilous.


I haven’t really connected with many of Malick’s films since The Thin Red Line (and certainly not the last few), as he’s progressively loosened his narrative focus in preference for impressionistic movements. However, with A Hidden Life, he seems to have reined this extravagance in a bit (though the stylistic tics are still very much evident), not to mention choosing a setting and theme that seems more fitting to his particular style. Of course, there’s still plenty of voiceover, used more as another layer of sound than to convey any specific information, and he takes the interesting decision to have the film in English except where perhaps the words are less important — background chatter, bureaucratic invective, in which case it’s in German.

It’s an odd film, though, that bathes this story — of Franz (August Diehl), an Austrian peasant in the early-1940s, who grimly resolves (with an at times wavering, but nevertheless increasingly bitterly held, sense of moral clarity) to defy military tribunals and not speak the ‘Hitler oath’ — in a certain sort of beatific calm, which makes sense given he was after all beatified not so long ago. There’s little sense of the actual war, and perhaps in 1940-1943 (when the film is set), it hasn’t particularly reached the alpine Austrian setting of St Radegund or even the Berlin prison he’s shipped off to later. There’s one chilling scene where the village’s mayor inveighs against the dangers of immigrants and foreigners, despite clearly having none in his midst, which obviously remains current, but otherwise this is very much focused on Franz and (almost equally) his wife Franziska, grounding their story in the community and (as you might expect from a Malick film) the glory of the natural world. It’s not even quite as overtly spiritual as some of his more recent films have been, though given Franz’s Catholic faith and his later beatification, it is obviously imbued with that throughout.

I liked it, and didn’t even feel the running time once the movie started to hold me. It’s shot with some oddly distorting lenses, and the camera operators must all have been children given how close to the ground the camera seems to be most of the time, but Malick’s impressionist excesses aren’t so much on show or are perhaps less jarring when not juxtaposed against Hollywood or indie music backgrounds.

A Hidden Life film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Jörg Widmer; Starring August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Jürgen Prochnow, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz; Length 174 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Friday 17 January 2020.

Sword of Trust (2019)

After news of director Lynn Shelton’s death broke last Saturday, like probably many cinephiles I watched a couple of her films the next day, revisiting Laggies and then her final film, made last year and which only trickled out onto UK streaming services at some point, presumably earlier this year. It’s a shaggy story but the easy charm of its leads and their interactions mean there’s no reason why it wouldn’t have made a perfectly good cinematic release, which events have conspired to prevent. Technically, it’s not her last feature film directorial credit (that would be comedy special Marc Maron: End Times Fun), but it’s the last one that marks her own work and distinctive voice, and features a fairly large acting role for her in the first five minutes of the film as the estranged partner of the protagonist.


This film further proves director Lynn Shelton’s adeptness with actors, eliciting some really fine character work via improvisational methods (so I gather), all within a loosely comedic framework. The themes of the film could’ve gone properly dark but it largely avoids that: the idea is that Jillian Bell’s character Cynthia inherits a sword from her recently deceased grandfather that he believed “proves” the South won the Civil War, whereupon she and pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) discover that there’s money to be made from this absurd notion. “What is this, Antiques Roadshow for racists?” Mel asks when shown a YouTube clip by his shop assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass) of an online vendor offering top dollar for items that “prove” their topsy-turvy thesis, and indeed there’s a running commentary about fake news and conspiracy theories throughout the film thanks to Nathaniel. The film never quite gets dragged down into the dark holes it skirts around, and ends up being a pretty low-stakes movie about small-scale grifters toying with ideas they all realise they shouldn’t really be getting involved with (it’s such a shaggy dog story that the involvement of guns towards the end of the film feels like a bit of a mis-step to me). Still, there’s such a lot of good character-led acting happening here, in such an easy unforced way, that it really makes you feel Shelton’s loss all the more; she had such a way with actors that for all the plot’s contortions, this film just feels like hanging out for an hour or two.

Sword of Trust film posterCREDITS
Director Lynn Shelton; Writers Shelton and Mike O’Brien; Cinematographer Jason Oldak; Starring Marc Maron, Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Jon Bass, Dan Bakkedahl; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (Sky Movies streaming), London, Sunday 17 May 2020.

Knives Out (2019)

This is very obviously neither an indie film nor exactly is it much related to “mumblecore” in any way, but rather it’s a knowing genre film that uses these familiar murder-mystery whodunit tropes to tell a somewhat sub rosa story of class and race in modern America. At some level I guess I still think of Rian Johnson as indie, perhaps because of his first film Brick (2005), though he very quickly took to rather bigger productions, which this of course is. Still, my blog my rules, so I’m putting it in this themed week.


A very polished and fun whodunit murder-mystery thriller set amongst a rich family at their stately old New England pile, which revolves ultimately around capitalism, class and immigration, though without ever really overtly digging into these topics. In fact, nothing ever feels more important than when it’s prefiguring another twist or leading to some well-crafted satirical repartee, but that’s all part of the film’s easy charm. The old man who has died mysteriously (Christopher Plummer) is a renowned author, and we discover in flashbacks — because the film starts with his dead body being discovered — that most of his extended family basically live off him, much to his increasing chagrin. Saying more about it would be to trade in spoilers, which I do not care to do, but there’s a wealth of delightful little character details, as well as some big chewy roles for the assembled hams to have a crack at (none moreso than Daniel Craig’s Sherlock-like drawling Lousianian private investigator), and some fine casting does a lot of the work, but Ana de Armas as the old man’s nursemaid turns out to be the stand-out role in the starry ensemble. It’s all intricately plotted as you might expect, and its charms are fairly surface-level, but see it in a big audience and there’s plenty to delight.

Knives Out film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rian Johnson; Cinematographer Steve Yedlin; Starring Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Lakeith Stanfield; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 1 December 2019 (and again at the Genesis, London, Sunday 8 December 2019).