El despertar de las hormigas (The Awakening of the Ants, 2019)

As you’ll see from my recent posts about films available on Mubi, a recurring theme is new films by new filmmakers. This one comes from the Berlin film festival, and is the debut by a Costa Rican woman filmmaker, dealing with one woman’s domestic life. It was only recently up on Mubi, and may have gone by now, but every month there are others not unlike this one.


Like a lot of recent Latin American cinema I’ve seen (and I’m thinking of Los tiburones, or Hogar, or the works of Lucrecia Martel, Dominga Sotomayor or Lina Rodriguez), there’s a very quiet and watchful tone being struck in this film. It’s about Isabel (Daniela Valenciano), a mother of two daughters, whose life seems to be largely about keeping control of the kids, alongside cooking for her husband (Leynar Gomez). It’s the kind of dull, depressing life that makes one’s mind drift towards Jeanne Dielman, but there’s nothing quite so dramatic developing here, although the ants of the title (along with other household insects) have a habit of appearing in Isa’s waking nightmares, little hallucinatory breaks from her mundane daily reality. She’s in a state of anxiety because her husband wants another child (a boy, of course), but she really doesn’t want that, and so sets her mind to little ways of sabotaging this plan. It’s a film that expresses this disquiet in subtle ways as it goes on; for example, the husband could easily be a monster, but apart from being oblivious to the work Isa is doing, he’s largely a pretty decent guy. And so it’s a slow film in the way it develops, but focused always on Isa and the ways in which she feels trapped by domesticity.

The Awakening of the Ants film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Antonella Sudasassi; Cinematographer Andrés Campos; Starring Daniela Valenciano, Leynar Gomez; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 24 March 2020.

Corpo Celeste (aka Heavenly Body, 2011)

Another film you won’t currently find on Mubi, but this debut feature by a major modern filmmaker is just one of the types of strands Mubi regularly presents. In fact, it’s one of the places I’ve been most fortunate to catch up with the early films of important contemporary filmmakers. As just one example, right now (i.e as of 25 March 2020) you can find Neighbouring Sounds, the debut film by Kleber Mendonça Filho (of Aquarius and Bacurau fame).


I loved Rohrwacher’s latest film Happy as Lazzaro and seeing her first feature film reminds me that a lot of what I loved there is present in all her work. It doesn’t feel heavy-handed at all to me, but rather a very gentle coming of age narrative, about a young girl (Yle Vianello) who starts to really get a sense not so much of adulthood itself, as of the disappointments that this world she’s entering can present, specifically around religion. She has come to Italy, a devoutly Catholic country, after a period of having grown up in Switzerland, and finds the church there to be somewhat disappointing, and the classes she attends just a little bit lacking in serious intent. While Santa, one of the lay women who runs the classes, fusses over the very much middling priest (Salvatore Cantalupo), our heroine Marta sits there impassively watching and judging all the nonsense that is passed off as being part of faith. It’s true that some of the symbolic reaches the film goes for are pretty strong — the crucifix mounted to the roof of the priest’s car as he speeds around the mountain ridges feels like one such — but overall this film prefers to focus on the quiet and melancholy experienced by Marta as she navigates this world.

Corpo Celeste film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Rohrwacher; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Yle Vianello, Salvatore Cantalupo, Anita Caprioli; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Wednesday 15 January 2020.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019)

Hello and belated greetings to a new week. I got back from holiday and had my first day at work yesterday (Monday) so I failed to put a post up. Now I’m working from home, and may be for a while. This week’s theme is ‘films available on Netflix’ (and probably all directed by women). Maybe in future weeks I will cover other online streaming services. “But why now?” I hear you ask. “Why would you do a themed week about films available to watch online?” Well, I shall leave that for you to guess. I’m going to start with one of the most impressive little indie films from the last year, with a resonant title.


This isn’t a particularly showy film, though it does some things that other films make a big deal about. For a start, it’s shot like a Dardenne brothers film, in these long sinuous handheld shots, moving with people almost continuously, with very few perceptible cuts. However, the subject matter isn’t particularly aggrandising, as instead it deals with the aftermath of domestic violence, about one (professional, middle-class) woman, Aila (played by one of the directors, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), helping out Rosie (Violet Nelson), a poorer, pregnant woman she finds standing barefoot in the rain with a bruised face. Both are of First Nations origins, although that doesn’t necessarily help them get along — class seems to be the more evident dividing line, and Rosie finds it difficult to feel comfortable in the situation. The film is about trying to find some truth in these circumstances, of how difficult it is for those who are abused to accept help, and how difficult it is for those who want to give it, to accept that it may not always be wanted. The film journeys into a lot of difficult emotional terrain, and I think it’s a credit to the film that nothing is resolved easily. However, there’s a grace to it, and a sustaining power of just witnessing peoples’ lives and perhaps learning what it is to be helpful in such circumstances.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn; Cinematographer Norm Li; Starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Violet Nelson; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Sunday 1 December 2019.

Trys dienos (Three Days, 1991)

A filmmaker whose first films were made in the final dying days of the Soviet Union (I have a bonus review of one of them below), but who has since come to some prominence on the art film scene has been Šarūnas Bartas (often transcribed as Sharunas Bartas). I’ve so far only seen this, his debut feature film, but it has a beautiful slow cinema quality that definitely commends his work to me, and as a bonus comes in at a sprightly 75 minutes.


Strong echoes of Tarkovsky in this debut feature. It moves slowly, deliberately, without excessive talking. There are characters (two young men, and a young woman, primarily), who meet, then seem to be looking for a room, but for what reason (sex? shelter? some flicker of human connection?) is unclear. What is evident is that their town is bleak, apparently without comfort, filled with crumbling edifices, and that their lives have little future to commend them. Bartas, like Tarkovsky and Tarr, is great at capturing that feeling in landscapes, against which the characters seem suitably bowed. Fantastic stuff but I love this kind of thing.

Three Days French film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Šarūnas Bartas; Cinematographer Vladas Naudžius; Starring Katerina Golubeva Екатери́на Го́лубева, Rimma Latypova Римма Латыпова, Arūnas Sakalauskas, Audrius Stonys; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 30 December 2016.


Praejusios Dienos Atminimui (In Memory of the Day Passed By, 1990) [USSR, medium-length, black-and-white]

A beautiful quiet mid-length film which has a documentary way about capturing an unnamed city and its characters, its bleakness and its persistence, and the changing seasons.

In Memory of the Day Passed By film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Šarūnas Bartas; Cinematographer Vladas Naudžius; Length 40 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 30 December 2016.

Ride Like a Girl (2019)

I don’t like to feature films on my site that I think are disappointing, as it seems to me a poor way to use a platform, however few followers one might have (and I don’t have many). However, I’ve committed myself to another Australian-themed week (which so far is by women directors) and I haven’t got many films to draw on, or time to watch new ones, so here’s one I saw on the plane over. It’s directed by Rachel Griffiths, a long-established actor whose work I’ve really appreciated, turning her hand to directing.


I know nothing about horse racing, or the competitive life of the professional jockey — though I am reminded that I’ve read a novel about a young woman riding horses for a living (it’s called House Rules by Heather Lewis) and let me tell you that had a very different tone to this film. Sadly, for all its positive messaging about young women growing up to achieve their dreams, Ride Like a Girl sticks to a programmatic structure and a deeply predictable template that majors on big swelling music to convey emotional journeys. The actors are uniformly excellent, but many of their best qualities are lost in the mix here, and the undoubtedly talented work of the jockey whose life is being told here seems reduced to a series of cliches. Still, it all looks very handsome.

Ride Like a Girl film posterCREDITS
Director Rachel Griffiths; Writers Andrew Knight and Elise McCredie; Cinematographer Martin McGrath; Starring Teresa Palmer, Sam Neill, Stevie Payne; Length 120 minutes.
Seen in-flight, London to Auckland, Friday 21 February 2020.

Emma. (2020)

I’m on holiday in New Zealand this week. I’m not exactly sure what’s coming out in cinemas here (it’s not a priority right now) and I don’t want to be sad about what I’m missing out on in London (I think Portrait of a Lady on Fire is out, and if it is, go see it). However next weekend I am going to a wedding, so I am doing a themed week about relationship movies, not all of them about weddings or romances, but I’ll try to fit in a few. Luckily, just about half of all popular culture is about romantic entanglements, so there should be plenty of pick from. First up is this film, the sad yet comical story of a matchmaker.


One wonders sometimes at the need to remake certain films. Clueless (1995) is such an enduring classic that it feels odd to have this updated version, which for reasons best known to the makers they’ve relocated to England in the 19th century. However, I have to admit it’s been 25 years since that previous film, so perhaps the time is ripe, and there is a very picturesque quality to these locations (almost too pastel-coloured at times, though captured with gorgeous clarity by Kelly Reichardt’s regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt).

One of the sad losses due to the change of setting is in some of the diversity of the cast: there are no gay characters, and all the principals (in fact, all of everyone) remain very firmly white. However, I can’t pretend there isn’t some joy to be had in the dialogue and the characters, all the same. It’s reaching for a Love & Friendship vibe, and the actors are all very capable at finding the comic potential (not just the noted comedic actors like Miranda Hart and Bill Nighy, but Josh O’Connor as the insufferable Elton, and of course Anya Taylor-Joy as the almost alien-looking title character, whose self-regarding exceptionalism seems to exude from her throughout the film).

For all that the title emphasises a certain finality of execution with its full stop, I do still think the canonical version of this text has already been made. However, this is a pleasant divertissement with little digs at the absurdities of class distinctions, and at Emma’s haughty attitudes. Also, as with every Austen adaptation, the dance sequences are expertly choreographed.

Emma film posterCREDITS
Director Autumn de Wilde; Writer Eleanor Catton (based on the novel by Jane Austen); Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor, Miranda Hart; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 17 February 2019.

海上浮城 Haishang Fucheng (Dead Pigs, 2018)

One recent talent to have emerged from film festivals — and who has already been attached to direct the new Harley Quinn DC superhero film, Birds of Prey — is Cathy Yan, who was born in China but has studied and worked for much of her life in Hong Kong and the USA. She returned to China to make her feature film debut, basing it around the enormous international city of Shanghai, as a sort of microcosm of the kinds of changes she wanted to satirically skewer.


There’s no doubt that debut feature filmmaker Cathy Yan is trying to pack a lot in here — like many modern Chinese films, it’s about the toxicity (literally, for the pigs) of modern venture capitalism, speculative building developments wiping away old communities, about changes to jobs especially for land-based occupations (like farming), about class and wealth differentials, and a whole lot more. Therefore, it can’t help but feel a little hurried at times, and a little bit busy, but for the most part I enjoyed it. The colours are bright, and the performances are sparky and watchable — not least Vivian Wu’s intractable yet stylish aunt, and Meng Li as a rich young woman looking for something more. Also, it has a karaoke singalong towards the end (though sadly nobody took part in my audience).

Dead Pigs film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Cathy Yan 閻羽茜; Cinematographer Federico Cesca; Starring Vivian Wu 邬君梅, Li Meng [or Vivien Li] 李梦, Yang Haoyu 杨皓宇, Zazie Beetz; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 18 October 2018.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

I’ve decided to nominate Saturdays on my blog as ‘revisit a theme you’ve already done a week about with a film you’ve watched recently’ so hopping back to my African-American cinema week with this recent release, which is the one whose release I was working my themed week around. It’s directed by a white guy, but (at least partly) written by its star Jimmie Fails, aspects of whose life it tells. It’s a very striking debut feature certainly, and very much worth checking out.


This was a film that surprised me. Obviously it’s impossible to make a film set now in San Francisco without it being at least obliquely (though here less so) about gentrification and the nature of modern capitalism, and I thought that Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy had captured all that perfectly well ten years ago, but this is a completely different film in every aspect. I’m rather surprised, indeed, that it’s a debut film, though at times the denseness of the music and image does feel a little bit cluttered. Still, it has a real poetry to the way it evokes — and at the same denaturalises through its aesthetic choices — modern San Franciscan life. It’s about what it means to live in a place, and love it (“you don’t get to hate it if you don’t love it”), but also be pushed away and alienated by it. Jimmie, the lead character who also contributed to the screenplay, has the quality of a young Don Cheadle, and seems to encapsulate something at times quite profound about the city (and most modern cities), while his friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) seems to stand equally outside the place, if for different reasons. Still, I sometimes wonder if I’m not just being a bit distracted by the deeply mannered sense of aesthetics, though I can’t deny it caught up with me on several occasions.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco film posterCREDITS
Director Joe Talbot; Writers Talbot, Rob Richert and Jimmie Fails; Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra; Starring Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 27 October 2019.

Criterion Sunday 162: Ratcatcher (1999)

It’s very easy, I think, to imagine all of Lynne Ramsay’s films as being suffused with bleakness, especially when you cast your eye over any given plot summary. Ratcatcher, after all, starts with a classic bit of misdirect as Ryan, a cherubic young boy being dragged off by his mother to see his dad, spots his friend James (William Eadie) playing by the canal, and so hides from his mum and goes down to James, where they get in a play fight and Ryan drowns while James runs off in confusion and guilt. Almost as quickly, then, we realise that it’s James who is the centre of the film, a gaunt angular boy who even at the best of times seems to be carrying the woes of the world. Other characters are hardly having less of a time of it than James, not least Margaret (Leanne Mullen), the slightly older girl he meets, who is callously exploited by the older boys around them, but who forms a quite playful friendship with James. And therein I think is a lot of Ramsay’s storytelling power, in contrasting the bleakness of the narrative and the setting (a dour early-70s Glasgow during a binmen’s strike), with moments of pure escapism and fantasy, or the occasional respite of innocent play. The key recurring motif is of James in a field of long grass as he imagines the perfect home the family will move to, away from the decay and the rot and the dereliction. Somehow this balances the Bressonian sense of doom, or a grim fatality reminiscent of many Russian filmmakers, leaving an indelible impression of the debut feature of one of Britain’s finest working filmmakers.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Ramsay’s three earlier short films are included, best of all being Gasman (1998), a really fine bit of storytelling done in 15 minutes, a fractured family story set at Christmas against a background (familiar from her other short films) of an impoverished Scottish milieu. It’s seen through the eyes of the kids — low camera angles, lots of telling details caught by the camera — who are confused by new developments in their emotionally distant father’s life. Bleak, but great.
  • Alongside it are Kill the Day (1996) — which has a nice sense of fractured time, bleak shards of a story and a reverie-like atmosphere that would find fruition in the feature — and Small Deaths (1996) — a little collection of vignettes from a young girl’s life suggestive of the pain of growing up and becoming socialised into a world of violence.
  • There’s a 20-minute video interview with Ramsay, as she talks through her (at that point, fairly brief) career and the inception of Ratcatcher from story to production, and notably the casting of her young non-professional actors.
  • Finally, there’s a gallery of still photographs taken during production, which further emphasise the sort of aesthetic Ramsay was aiming for, based as much in photography as in film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lynne Ramsay; Cinematographer Alwin Küchler; Starring William Eadie; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 27 July 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 27 January 2019).

เจ้านกกระจอก Jao nok krajok (Mundane History, 2009)

There’s something to Anocha Suwichakornpong’s filmmaking, a sort of dreamy, elliptical oddness that has long stretches of quiet watchfulness (long takes with a fairly static camera, though often handheld so a bit shaky)… but then there are these little flares of strangeness (and I still can’t help but thinking about fellow Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul in this regard). This is a story of two men: Ake, from a rich family, who has mobility issues (Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk); and the other, Pun (Arkaney Cherkam), his carer, from somewhat lower down the rungs of society. There’s almost an upstairs-downstairs dynamic (we also see the family’s cook), but that’s not really dwelt upon. What unfolds is largely this slow evolution of feeling between the two, with sort of mystical asides to astronomy and an unexpected scene of childbirth at the end (even the appearance of the opening credits 15 minutes in took me by surprise). I can’t explain what it’s doing, but it’s interesting enough for me to want to watch more by the same filmmaker (her more recent film By the Time It Gets Dark had much the same effect on me).

Mundane History film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Anocha Suwichakornpong อโนชา สุวิชากรพงศ์; Cinematographer Ming-Kai Leung 梁铭佳; Starring Arkaney Cherkam อาคเนย์ เชื้อขำ, Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk ภาคภูมิ สุรพงศานุรักษ์; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 1 March 2017.