A fairly sweet and innocuous film about childhood, set in 1950s Sweden, and it feels very… Swedish? The title refers to the young protagonist’s dog, as well as his reveries at night, while looking into the stars, about Soviet space travelling dog Laika. It’s at once sentimentally nostalgic yet without the cloying sweetness you might get in an American film with the same theme. As a film, it just sort of pleasantly washes over you, and nobody in the film seems too horrible, which is its own reward when you’ve been watching documentaries all weekend about genocidal imperialist aggression (as I had been, but that’s another review I suppose).
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Lasse Hallström | Writers Lasse Hallström, Brasse Brännström and Per Berglund (based on a novel by Reidar Jönsson) | Cinematographer Jörgen Persson | Starring Anton Glazelius, Melinda Kinnaman | Length 101 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 November 2017
I really like this spare, fugue-like elegy for the dispossessed in all its overtly Malickian sensibilities. Perhaps seeing it at a film festival when it was released, before a lot of other filmmakers had jumped on that particular ride (and the one who made this had very much jumped off), was more surprising but there’s still beauty and warmth, in those magic light colours of a place where the South meets the rust belt, and the feeling in the non-professional actors. A really vivid take on the coming of age that does most of its thematic work in little vignettes of community life and almost throwaway dialogue, preferring stretches of contemplative reflection of quiet desuetude.
Criterion Extras: Besides a trailer, there’s also quite a few interesting extras, most notably two student short films by Green, Pleasant Grove (1997) and Physical Pinball (1998). Both share quite a few similarities with George Washington, which lifts the first’s story of a boy with a stray dog who can’t take it home as a little detail for George. While this first one is a sweet slow little film that sets up some ideas that would be progressed by the feature, the second feels more fully rounded. It’s about a father-daughter relationship (both actors would return for the feature), and has a nice sense of how out of his depth the father is after his wife has passed.
Along with these is A Day with the Boys (1969), a short by actor Clu Gulager, a wordless film with a hazy nostalgic tone, all slo-mo running set to plaintive trumpet (very much of its era), jazzed up with all kinds of visual touches. It all turns a bit Lord of the Flies, as I suppose many days with the boys will, but it’s a diverting mood piece.
Aside from this there’s a Charlie Rose interview with a (very young!) David Gordon Green, which covers a few of his influences, not to mention some insights about how he cast and shot the film, though it is quite short. A deleted scene of a town hall meeting imparts a sense of some of Green’s verité reference points, as the camera does quick zooms and pans in the style of those fly-on-the-wall documentaries from the 60s. Finally, there’s a short piece interviewing its child stars a year after release in 2001, as they expound on how it was to make the film, and some of their aspirations.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer David Gordon Green | Cinematographer Tim Orr | Starring Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden | Length 89 minutes || Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Friday 20 July 2001 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 7 May 2017)
A late film by Yasujiro Ozu which is set amongst a small group of neighbours in a Tokyo suburb and treats childhood with a light, comic touch. The plot, such as it is, has the kids of one family refusing to speak after being scolded by their father (Chishu Ryu) for going round to a neighbour’s home to watch sumo wrestling on TV. In a fit of pique after being refused this modern convenience — their father inveighs against its stupefying effect — the kids reject the language of their parents and what they see as all the stupid meaningless banalities of conversation like “hello”, “goodbye”, “thank you” and of course “good morning”. Meanwhile, gossip spreads amongst the neighbours when the local residents’ association dues haven’t been paid, as first one and the another member of this tight-knit community is suspected of having absconded with the cash. It may depict a long-vanished world in which doors are always open and people can pop round to one another’s home to chat, but at the heart is the tension brought about by the modern consumerist world and its increasing technologisation. The gossip centres largely on the purchase of a washing machine, while the TV also seems to divide the families. Things never get too dark –- everyone converses with a fixed and ready smile, even when you suspect they’re pretty angry, and indeed entire conversations proceed with a surface level of the kind of banality that the kids hate, even as other feelings are being expressed. The comedy is provided by the kids, and for all Ozu’s austere reputation, there’s a recurring farting game that consistently goes wrong for one of the kids.
Criterion Extras: Another very basic edition, with only the written notes and nothing on the disc, though it’s as fine a transfer as ever of this rare Ozu colour film. (However, since this review was written there’s been a new blu-ray release with more extras.)
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Yasujiro Ozu | Writers Kogo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu | Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta | Starring Haruko Sugimura, Chishu Ryu | Length 94 minutes || Seen at my mother’s flat (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 15 March 2015
This film was presented at the London Film Festival, introduced by its director, who did a Q&A afterwards.
It’s not been uncommon over the last couple of decades for French films to mine a disturbing terrain of imagery and emotion, but the problem I’ve had with directors like Gaspar Noé and Bruno Dumont is quite often that their cinema of transgression tends to rely on nasty, bloody, vicious things like rape, torture and murder. But perhaps, the slender œuvre of Lucile Hadzihalilovic suggests, nothing is quite so transgressive as life. After a wait of over ten years since her last film Innocence comes Evolution (already a fondness for titles which work in both English and French), which has something of a similar trajectory in dealing with that liminal stage in which children move into being teenagers. Hadzihalilovic has a way of converting societal expectations around protecting children from the adult world into something more tangibly oppressive: where in Innocence it was the girls’ boarding school, where new students entered in a coffin, here it’s an isolated island town with only boys (of whom Max Brebant is the protagonist) being looked after by mother figures, who seem to be participants in some kind of communal procreative rite backed up by a medicalised procedure to ensure their sons never become men. It’s this medical aspect which is most disturbing, suggesting eugenics and involving some kind of invasive surgical experimentation. At the same time, there’s a blurred boundary around gender identity and procreation: we never see any men, the women on the island don’t appear to have sexual organs, and the surgical procedures call into question exactly who is gestating the foetuses and how they are being brought to term. Of course none of this is intended to make literal sense — throughout the film, there’s an eeriness to the lighting and colours that imparts a distinctly oneiric quality, especially combined with the non-expressive acting, its female leads apparently chosen for the blank mask-like faces (particularly that of Roxane Duran as Stella, a nurse with a strange connection to Max’s character). And so the story has more of a timeless, mythical quality, much like the director’s first film. I can only hope there won’t be another 11 year wait for the next one.
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival Director Lucile Hadžihalilović | Writer Lucile Hadžihalilović and Alanté Kavaïté | Cinematographer Manuel Dacosse | Starring Max Brebant, Roxane Duran | Length 81 minutes || Seen at Vue West End, London, Tuesday 13 October 2015
The BFI have been doing sterling work this past month putting on a retrospective of the works of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, so I took a chance to see this key early film of his. It bears many of the hallmarks of his mature directorial work, particularly his great masterpiece A City of Sadness (1989). Both films deal with the tumultuous political events affecting China’s relationship to Taiwan during the mid-20th century, refracting it through one family, though this earlier film is perhaps more attentive to the domestic drama. Undoubtedly there’s plenty happening behind the scenes, though its political commentary is more subtly done. It’s primarily a coming of age story dealing with Ah-ha (or Ah-hsiao, a stand-in for the filmmaker, played by Yu An-shun as he gets older), though the most dynamic presence within the family is the grandmother (Tang Ju-yun). She is convinced the family will be returning soon to the mainland, as evoked by the cheap wicker furniture the family have for their home, as they had always assumed their relocation would be temporary. It spans a couple of decades, as family members grow older and die, and deals in an almost deceptively calm way with the passage of time and of youth, as Ah-ha moves from studious child to rebellious teen.
RETROSPECTIVE FILM REVIEW: Hou Hsiao-hsien Director Hou Hsiao-hsien | Writers Chu Tien-wen and Hou Hsiao-hsien | Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin | Starring Yu An-shun, Tang Ju-yun | Length 138 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 18 September 2015
It’s been getting great reviews since it was released last month in the States, but for me the signs preceding Inside Out weren’t entirely auspicious, as I’d been feeling pummelled by the sheer weight of all the hype, and the apparent blanket saturation of the marketing. Admittedly, it’s not been quite as aggressive as Minions, but it’s also somehow less obviously appealing (those yellow creatures are awfully cute). The short film that precedes it in cinemas (“Lava”) is also pretty anodyne and faintly annoying (a cod-Hawaiian song about heteronormative volcanoes), so that didn’t exactly help either. Plus there were clearly a few grumpy contingents at the screening I attended, judging from the brief bout of remonstration being levelled at the parents of a crying child (the man’s insistence that the crying child was too young for the film somewhat belied by the film’s U rating, and also hey non-parents get a goddamn grip if you’re going to a U-rated film, even if it’s in the evening).
But — and I sense you’re expecting this “but” — I needn’t have worried. The director Pete Docter comes to this project from his previous Pixar success Up (2009), and if you’ve seen that film, you’ll perhaps have a sense of the emotional tone deployed here. Sure there’s comedy (it’s a Hollywood animated film; there’s always comedy), but the register feels a lot more reflective and even melancholy at times. This is matched by the sound design, which isn’t afraid to jettison the musical score and embrace relative silence when it suits the story, which revolves around the emotional trauma of an 11-year-old girl, Riley, whose parents relocate the family from the Midwest to San Francisco. The particular device the filmmakers use to reflect this is to personify her emotions as individual characters (Amy Poehler voices Joy, Phyllis Smith voices Sadness, and there’s Disgust, Fear and Anger besides), sitting in a control tower in a colourful visual representation of her mind. The animation is crammed with little details that extend the central metaphor (it’s a very metaphorical film), and there are some delightful sequences that play out as Joy and Sadness must make their way back to the control tower from the outer reaches of Riley’s brain (the one that takes place in ‘abstract thought’ comes to mind, as well as the dream sequences).
It’s commendable that Docter and the screenwriters keep the story focused on Riley when it would have been easy to mine further laughs from the similarly-represented minds of those around her (a device sparingly but effectively utilised). It also all seems to work pretty coherently as a metaphorical representation of the mind and its emotional processes, with memories stacked up like bowling balls and colour-coded by the guiding emotion at play, then sent off for filing in a vast repository, which includes a dump for those discarded memories. Core memories stay in the control tower and are the foundations of various personality traits, imagined as outyling islands around the control tower (cerebral cortex, one imagines). The care thus shown to the creation of this interior world, and the film’s avoidance of excessive mawkishness, surely mark it out as one of the finer Pixar filmsm one that’s sure to become one of their audience’s core memories.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Pete Docter | Writers Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley | Starring Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Lewis Black | Length 94 minutes (+ 7 minutes for the short film Lava, dir./wr. James Ford Murphy) || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Tuesday 28 July 2015
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 2 February 2015
One narrative strategy that’s been quite successful for smaller, less-industrialised and more socially conservative filmmaking nations (I’m thinking Iran in the 1990s) has been to focus a story around a child using what is outwardly a fairly whimsical conceit — in this case that Junior (Samuel Lange Zambrano) doesn’t like his frizzy hair and wants to straighten it — and use this to make trenchant comments about a range of fairly weighty societal issues. Because Junior’s search for a hair straightening solution here is merely a source of occasional comedy. More to the point is what it implies about Junior’s place in society: he’s something of an outsider, as his now-departed father was black, so his hair is a marker of his difference from his mother Marta (Samantha Castillo), who struggles to hold down a job and take care of her two kids (including a distinctly more-loved baby from a different, equally absent, father). Junior’s focus on his appearance is also contextualised within a mediated world of body image obsession, which affects both him and particularly his (apparently only) friend, a chubby young neighbour girl who likes princess dresses and whose mother holds fat-loss clinics in her flat (though they look more like exorcisms for all the good they achieve). This in turn prompts Marta to a mild homophobic panic about her son’s sexuality, which you can track in off-hand comments as well as Marta’s suspicion at both the local shopkeeper and the interest shown by Junior’s black aunt. After all, none of these themes are in any way forced by the filmmaking, which largely avoids melodrama and retains its subtle domestic focus, building up its themes gradually by being observant of the actors and their interactions. Along the way you get a sense of the lives of ordinary, poor Venezuelans, exposed to a lot of the same media messages while struggling to hold down jobs or relationships. For all the almost documentary ease with which it is put together, then, Pelo malo is a very carefully-structured and crafted film, and a very fine one at that.
CREDITS || Director/Writer Mariana Rondón | Cinematographer Micaela Cajahuaringa | Starring Samuel Lange Zambrano, Samantha Castillo | Length 93 minutes
This is a short review, as again I’ve let myself get behind in my write-ups at this busy time of year…
FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Hirokazu Koreeda | Cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki | Starring Koki Maeda, Oshiro Maeda | Length 128 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 16 December 2013 || My Rating excellent
I think it’s clear at this point that Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda likes to make films about kids and their families, like a rather more sensitive rendering of the themes of earlier Steven Spielberg movies. His Like Father, Like Son was one of my favourite films at this year’s London Film Festival, and this previous film (only released in UK cinemas earlier this year) is also a delight. Both films feature families split apart — in this case by divorce — but I Wish takes the children as its protagonists, lending it also a sense of real child-like wonder.