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.

Three 1956 Films by Yuzo Kawashima: Suzaki Paradise: Red Light, The Balloon and Our Town

Continuing my films seen on Mubi week, it’s incredible now, but perhaps unsurprising, to reflect that Japan produced such a huge wealth of filmmaking talent after the war that has been so little appreciated (at least here) despite the many decades that have since elapsed. Mubi has inaugurated a retrospective dedicated to one such underappreciated talent (director Yuzo Kawashima), whose films are well-regarded by the Japanese film community, but almost unknown — and certainly largely unavailable — in English. Despite his lack of Western renown, his Bakumatsu Taiyoden (A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era, 1957) has its acolytes, especially in Japan where it comes near the top of a lot of best-ever lists, but perhaps the titles just didn’t translate so well in English. It’s frustrating that in the UK only three of his many films were made available on Mubi; when I travelled earlier this month to Australia, I found a lot more of them, though sadly (being on holiday) did not take up the opportunity to watch them all.

Continue reading “Three 1956 Films by Yuzo Kawashima: Suzaki Paradise: Red Light, The Balloon and Our Town”

Two Films by Kira Muratova: The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) and Chekhovian Motifs (aka Chekhov’s Motifs, 2002)

The Ukrainian director Kira Muratova died in 2018 after a long career starting in the 1960s. Her filmmaking is perplexing, perhaps wrought from the chaotic times she worked through, dense with allusion and busy with action, almost breathlessly so. I can’t pretend to understand all the details, and in some cases much of it seems to wash over me, but I can’t deny she was doing something fascinating and her films remain worth watching if you can (and they are not always easy to track down).

Continue reading “Two Films by Kira Muratova: The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) and Chekhovian Motifs (aka Chekhov’s Motifs, 2002)”

Phantom Thread (2017)

Although the two principal characters do get married in this film, and there are certainly wedding dresses involved (for the lead character is a fashion designer), this isn’t really about marriage. It’s a relationship drama, though, and a rather twisted one at that, a three-way pull between Reynolds (Day-Lewis), his sister played by Lesley Manville, and a young woman who comes between them and tugs on Reynolds’ affections.


I was all ready to dismiss this film as yet another reworking of the eternal tropes of controlling older men and pliable younger women, an exercise in the manipulation of power dynamics via class, wealth, and the tedious tropes of masculine genius. After all, you can’t watch an awards contender, let alone a Paul Thomas Anderson film, without it being trailed in advance by untold reams of critical dissection that help you along to an opinion on a film you’ve not yet seen.

However, I think what I specifically like about it is the way that it moves from being one thing at the start — an idea of a handsomely mounted prestige costume drama (literally so: it’s about someone who makes clothes) — to something quite different by the end. To a certain extent this reflects the way the power dynamics shift, so that what starts as being about a controlling mercurial ‘genius’-like figure and the psychic toll you imagine he’ll inflict on this young ingenue-like woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), to the way Alma starts to find power within their relationship and the way he starts to willingly submit to it, becomes really the heart of the piece.

There’s certainly something of Hitchcock to this story, as it seems to be about a man shaping a woman’s identity to his own needs (a hint of Vertigo), yet I think there’s a lot more care taken with the construction than that. For a start, Alma is really the key character here, the one who drives the film in ways that Day-Lewis’s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock does not, for he is just a man. It’s quite fascinating the way she subsumes Reynolds’ gaze and turns his controlling behaviour back on him, to a certain extent. I won’t go into details, but I think the power dynamic (while clearly unequal) is very interestingly handled, and Lesley Manville as Reynolds’ sister Cyril/mother surrogate is a key to unpicking it. Everything, ultimately, seems to be bound up in that central metaphor of stitching and impermanence.

This isn’t all that’s going on, though. Every filmmaker at some point in their career (if they have one) will make a film about their own creativity, and this feels like that, with Reynolds being the director stand-in. He is, after all, very much just one person within an industry, and this industry relies on the labour of women, in particular. The scenes of the women arriving at the start, of his workers standing around in their smocks just quietly getting on with the work, and then when Reynolds falls ill near the end, the way they work all night on his (their) project are among the more magical sequences in the film, a sort of emotional backbone to his own fragility as an ‘artist’.

Along with its careful symbolism, Phantom Thread has the feel of classic in terms of the way it’s shot (by Anderson himself as far as I can tell, and what a lushly grainy look it has, especially on 35mm), and the period 50s fashions on display. It’s artfully studied, and that suits the story I think. Things resolve with a certain element of perversity, of wilful helplessness, articulated not least in the focus on eating. I’d not been a fan up until Inherent Vice, but I do believe Paul T. has entered the imperial phase of his filmmaking.

Phantom Thread film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Paul Thomas Anderson; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho (35mm), London, Monday 5 February 2018 (and most recently on 70mm at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Sunday 5 January 2020).

The First Three Feature Films by Krzysztof Zanussi: The Structure of Crystals (1969), Family Life (1971) and Illumination (1973)

Of course, the big release this Friday in the UK is a very belated one for South Korean film Parasite which has been picking up all the awards, and indeed I probably have enough South Korean films to do another themed week, though I’ve already done one a few months ago, so I’ll hold off on that for now. However, there’s also a small release for a new Agnieszka Holland film (Mr. Jones, which looks to be an odd little number, made largely in English but set in the 1930s in the USSR). She of course has a long history in Polish cinema, and I’ve just reviewed Andrzej Wajda’s seminal war film trilogy as part of my Criterion Sunday series, so herewith a themed week around Polish cinema. I’ll start with the under-heralded auteur Krzysztof Zanussi. If I don’t love his work, the posters are at least all excellent, as you expect from a country with such fine traditions of poster art

Continue reading “The First Three Feature Films by Krzysztof Zanussi: The Structure of Crystals (1969), Family Life (1971) and Illumination (1973)”

Jezebel (2019)

One of the many films released today in the UK (which include the rather odd and unsettling The Lighthouse, along with new films by Marielle Heller, Clint Eastwood and Reed Morano, a woman director-cinematographer whose spy thriller The Rhythm Section has been bumped back for release a few times so it’s probably not very good but who knows)… anyway one of the new films is Queen & Slim by Melina Matsoukas. Most films with an African-American subject or director don’t get a cinematic release over here, so like the film I’m reviewing today, it’s more common to find them released fairly unceremoniously online. Netflix is at least higher profile than some other platforms, and it’s where you can find the film I’m reviewing today.


It’s unavoidable perhaps that this intimate drama is working with a low budget, but it’s great that films like this are getting at least some distribution via Netflix, because there was never going to be any cinematic screenings in the UK for this kind of film. Partially I feel that’s because it doesn’t fit into the kinds of stereotyped boxes that distributors over here have pegged for ‘Black’ films, being a story of a young woman in precarious circumstances who turns to sex work to make a living. This kind of precis could certainly lend itself to something exploitative or (worse) judgemental, but the filmmaker, who also stars in a supporting role, makes sure to focus on the title character’s engagement with the cam-girl industry, in ways that you don’t need a ‘based on real life’ title card to immediately get the sense are probably quite personal. There is, indeed, a constant sense of interloping in Tiffany’s world and her struggles that feels very close to the bone, and if the budget means nothing big and flashy happens, it’s all played admirably well, and it’s the acting and the unshowiness of the setting that distinguish it from some rather more clunky tales made in this vein.

Jezebel film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Numa Perrier; Cinematographer Brent Johnson; Starring Tiffany Tenille, Numa Perrier; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 22 January 2020.

Two Black Women Filmmakers with a Budget: Mudbound (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

I concede this is a fairly tenuous connection to make in order to lump together reviews of these recent films by two of the most successful of recent Black women directors, but I wanted to give them some attention during my week of Black American women filmmakers, despite having reviewed already a good number of their more famous works.

Obviously Ava DuVernay has become the most well-known of the two, primarily for Selma (2014), but she made some low-key dramas like Middle of Nowhere (2012) and I Will Follow (2010) which I like even more, as well as documentaries starting with This Is the Life (2008) but recently the high-profile 13th (2016), and graduated to the big budgets with this Disney-produced fantasy adventure film.

Meanwhile, Dee Rees made a splash with one of the best coming-of-age movies of the decade, Pariah (2011), before turning her attention to the (in my opinion) underrated biopic of Bessie Smith, Bessie (2015). Her budget for her World War II-set period drama Mudbound may only have been a fairly modest US$10 million, but you can see a lot of that up on screen, one of the earlier films in Netflix’s recent run of big prestige productions which have had some crossover between online streaming and big screen presentation.

Continue reading “Two Black Women Filmmakers with a Budget: Mudbound (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018)”

Jinn (2018)

Stories about the conflicts and difficulties of growing up within faith-based communities haven’t really been covered very strongly within American cinema, I don’t think — or at least not outside of engagement with Christianity. This West Coast-based film deals with a Black Muslim-American family and their daughter, who is struggling to reconcile this new identity with her life and her school-age peers. It didn’t entirely work for me, but there’s plenty to commend it all the same.


This film, although set in Los Angeles, is based on the writer-director’s experiences growing up as a young Muslim girl in Oakland (the setting for a number of recent excellent films touching on the Black experience in the United States). The performances from its actors are all uniformly excellent, not least Zoe Renee as the lead character, aspiring dance student Summer, whose mother Jade (Simone Missick) has converted to Islam. Summer finds herself drawn into her mother’s life and faith as a result, which provides the dramatic tensions for the rest of the film. It’s undermined a little by the at times didactic script, which creates a conflict between her and her mother, and has a lot of very pointed dramatic exchanges about being Black and Muslim in American society, about the nature of faith, and the struggles of the characters to find their way within the teachings of Islam (though as someone who has myself started participating in a religious community fairly late in life, I definitely felt some resonances). There’s a lot of judgmental behaviour, though the script ensures everyone gets their learning moment. Although I saw it at the London Film Festival with the producer and stars present to speak to the film afterwards, I think this film would work strongly on a streaming service (and given it never received a British cinematic release, I suppose that’s how most people will see it): it has likeable, interesting characters and develops its drama in a pleasing way, and I look forward to more stories from the director.

Jinn film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nijla Mu’min; Cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole; Starring Zoe Renee, Simone Missick; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Tottenham Court Road, London, Friday 12 October 2018.

Little Woods (aka Crossing the Line, 2018)

Lots of films are out in the UK on Friday, but one is the directorial debut of music video director Melina Matsoukas (think “Formation” by Beyoncé, for a start), called Queen & Slim. It’s had some mixed reviews from African-American critics, so I’m not the one who should best judge it, but it’s good to see more work making it to cinemas by Black American women directors. I’ve done an African-American cinema theme already, but this week is all about the women — many just starting their careers, like Nia DaCosta who directed the film I’m reviewing today — and a lot of their work (as I’ll probably cover this week) tends to make it out only on VoD or streaming platforms, if it gets any kind of release at all in the UK.


A quiet little small town drama of the type that isn’t uncommon (except perhaps in the cinema), but it’s still nice to see big stars like Tessa Thompson help to support this kind of filmmaking. It deals with a small rural community near the Canadian border, and gives a strong sense of what it’s like to eke out a living as a poor and underprivileged person in America, especially with respect to the (lack of) healthcare, which drives Thompson’s character to help smuggle drugs across the border. Nobody really wins here, as they’re all driven by desperation, but there’s compassion for these characters — especially from Thompson’s character, who despite the small-town gangster competition from Luke Kirby’s fellow grifter, is fundamentally doing what she does out of a good heart — and this is a solid little drama.

Little Woods film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nia DaCosta; Cinematographer Matt Mitchell; Starring Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Luke Kirby; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 28 December 2019.

ホーホケキョとなりの山田くん Hohokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun (My Neighbours the Yamadas, 1999)

Looking back at my favourite films I saw for the first time in the past year (ones that I haven’t already written up), it always feels somehow seasonally appropriate to talk about Studio Ghibli’s animations — not because they’re about Christmas, but they’re often about the idea of family and finding some kind of strength and shared communality with your family, which may not always be a lesson people take from Christmas, but it seems like it should be. My Neighbours the Yamadas may not be the most famous of Ghibli’s output, but it deserves to be better known, given it gently pokes fun at ways that families come together and fall apart, while also showing what can be good about them.


I feel like I’m still just starting my journey into Studio Ghibli’s animation, having not seen any until Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya about four years ago, and since having watched a number of the Miyazaki films (almost all extraordinary). In a sense, My Neighbours the Yamadas is less easily categorisable, given it has the sense of a serialised comic strip (which it is, after all, based upon), just these little self-contained stories, introduced by titles and often book-ended by a haiku. The animation focuses on the details that matter, so this isn’t the kind of richly-detailed visual worlds that you get in Miyazaki or, say, Your Name. (2016). Instead, there’s a caricaturists’ sense at work in capturing the personalities of these six characters (grandma, mum and dad, son and daughter, and pet dog), which, while setting it aside from some of these other titles, also gives it an immediacy and vibrancy that is somehow even stronger. In telling these little stories, it’s elucidating something of the mystery (to us as Western viewers, but perhaps even to them) of Japanese life and customs, while also showing the evident care that works within the family. The humour is all very gentle, and this is ultimately a likeable, sweet film about family life.

My Neighbours the Yamadas film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Isao Takahata 高畑勲 (based on the manga series ののちゃん Nono-chan by Hisaichi Ishii 石井壽一); Starring Toru Masuoka 益岡徹, Yukiji Asaoka 朝丘雪路; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 November 2019.