Criterion Sunday 283: Pokolenie (A Generation, 1955)

An excellent debut feature from Andrzej Wajda, which with his following two films, deals with Polish involvement in World War II. The stark black-and-white cinematography has enough flourishes to sustain cinematic interest — there’s a long opening tracking shot that’s almost Wellesian in its accomplishment, and seems to fit into a particularly Eastern European tradition that people like Miklós Jancsó would take up. It’s about a young man, Stach (Tadeusz Łomnicki), who joins the Communist underground resistance to the Nazis, fighting on behalf of the Jewish ghettoes, with one particularly compelling sequence towards the end as his cell get rather too closely involved in the violence, which leads to consequences for a budding relationship that Stach has started up with Dorota (Urszula Modrzyńska), one of the key organisers. It’s a fantastic and stylish first film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writer Bohdan Czeszko; Cinematographer Jerzy Lipman; Starring Tadeusz Łomnicki, Urszula Modrzyńska, Tadeusz Janczar; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 26 December 2019.

Journey’s End (2017)

War films of the last few years have understandably been focused more on World War I, given its centenary, as does the new release 1917. I’ve hardly been following all of them (though I wasn’t a huge fan of Testament of Youth, to take one example), but one of the strongest was this film based on a 1928 play. It has a stagy feel to it, but set in the trenches that feels somewhat appropriate.


I was taken along to see this war film, and honestly had no expectation of liking it (it’s not a film or a genre I would have sought out otherwise), but it’s a really solidly mounted, excellently acted character study of men under duress in World War I. When I say solidly mounted, I mean it looks like a film with a big budget, but I expect it didn’t have that — I suppose it helps that it’s set largely in the trenches, but it never feels cheaply done. It really helps too to have acting as good as Paul Bettany gives here (and of course Toby Jones is no slouch either), and the whole project is immensely lifted by the way he plays his character: genial, world-weary, not given to false optimism, but never defeated by the grinding awfulness of the men’s lives. (We see a fair bit of that.) And when I say it never feels cheap, I mean too that it’s not prone to being overly sentimental — there are opportunities for tears (I found the letters home particularly poignant), and many of the men are emotional enough on screen — but it eschews the orchestral in favour of a cleanly minimal score, and it’s the telling moments of class divisions and generational conflicts that are among the most interesting bits.

Journey's End film posterCREDITS
Director Saul Dibb; Writer Simon Reade (based on the play by R. C. Sherriff); Cinematographer Laurie Rose; Starring Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Paul Bettany, Tom Sturridge, Toby Jones; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Vue Piccadilly, London, Wednesday 22 January 2018.

Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier, 1955)

Unlike some of my other choices during this themed week of war films, this one very much is in the classic war genre, as a group of soldiers band together to fight the enemy, in what has become a patriotic epic for Finland, remade many times over the years.


I gather this occupies quite a prominent place in the Finnish film pantheon, and I suppose that must largely be for the way it ties in a country’s idea of itself into a group of characters at a key and difficult moment in their history, via a novel and many subsequent adaptations. It tells the story of a group of soldiers in a machine gun unit during World War II, when Finland was allied with Germany against its old foe of Russia, and the key to pulling that off I suppose is to focus tightly on these men, with all their various issues with their commanding officers as well as, eventually, the whole idea of the fight itself. (Not because they don’t hate the Russians, but just because it all seems so futile.) The core of the film is in these interactions, whether in training camps at the start, trudging across the country to the front lines, and then in the trenches, and you get a sense of the different guys, even if at times the film is somewhat reliant on familiar tropes: the cynical one, the grumpy one, the anti-authoritarian and yet supremely talented one (who may be a hero but is also a bit of a d!ck). The chief feeling in these scenes is a gentle sort of comedy, even a hint of satire — it never feels fully mocking of the war itself, but there’s something reminiscent of a lot of wartime-set television sitcoms to these interactions, a gentle sort of self-deprecating humour. And then, periodically, one or more of the characters faces something really nasty that jars you out of that feeling, as these almost interminable battle scenes stretch out, replete with falling bombs, trees blowing up, bullets flying and people getting crushed, maimed or shot. Some of the humour has dated somewhat, and it does run rather long, but it feels like it defines the spirit of a certain era of a country, and for someone like me who has no connection to Finland, I can almost see the appeal.

The Unknown Soldier film posterCREDITS
Director Edvin Laine; Writer Juha Nevalainen (based on the novel by Väinö Linna); Cinematographers Osmo Harkimo, Antero Ruuhonen, Olavi Tuomi and Pentti Unho; Starring Kosti Klemelä, Heikki Savolainen, Reino Tolvanen; Length 169 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Tuesday 29 January 2019.

Sarraounia (aka Sarraounia, une reine africaine, 1986)

Although my theme this week is building up to the release of 1917, this African epic isn’t strictly-speaking a war film (at least as far as its generic cues go), though it deals with a war between European colonisers and an African people who strongly resist.


A bold African epic about the titular queen who resists the French colonising armies in, I gather, what is present day Niger. In terms of the film, the queen (Aï Keïta) is more talked about and feared than actually seen, and in the end it is the white men who sort of do it to themselves, but the focus is on the moustachioed Captain Voulet (Jean-Roger Milo), not very far from some of the roles that Klaus Kinski would play for Herzog, as a power-addled self-destructive little dictator whose military rank makes him believe he is somehow beyond reproach. The film is really about the rot at the core of the colonialist mission, exemplified by this man, whose fixation on defeating queen Sarraounia becomes his undoing. It’s beautifully filmed in widescreen, with a score of traditional African percussion, along with some rousing acting from the non-professional (African) cast. It suggests not just the way that the 19th century European colonial project was resisted by Africans, but also some of the ways that African disunity allowed it to take hold in the first place, while also being celebratory of heroes like Sarraounia.

Sarraounia film posterCREDITS
Director Med Hondo ميد هوندو; Writers Hondo and Abdoulaye Mamani (based on a novel by Mamani); Cinematographer Guy Famechon; Starring Aï Keïta, Jean-Roger Milo; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Saturday 7 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.

Peterloo (2018)

Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s 2018 film The Nightingale is released in UK cinemas today, by all accounts a brutal drama about a woman seeking revenge. Last year also saw the release of Mike Leigh’s grand reenactment of historical events that are now 200 years old, a brutal massacre by the government of poor and disenfranchised people demanding Parliamentary reform, a massacre which led eventually to changes in the electoral system. I didn’t love the film, but there’s plenty to commend it all the same.


Oh, there are bits in this long evocation of working-class northern England (well, Manchester, specifically) that I really liked, but I’m already struggling to remember what those were in the overwhelming sense that this is a piece of teachable didactic history intended to be introduced in classrooms with study packs and discussion points… [adopting teacher voice] “So you heard the aristocrats voicing their anxiety about the French Revolution while idly quaffing wine; do you understand how that could have been an underlying reason for why they felt compelled to send in the cavalry so quickly?” etc etc. The problem is, I never really felt any of that: the characters were types, represented ideas and classes, embodied such roles as ‘mill workers’, ‘land-owning reformers’, ‘aristocrats’, ‘the King, who is obviously a massive wanker’ et al. When they discussed ideas, I never got a sense of what these might mean for any actual people, and so the whole just came across as a pageant (or even as propaganda), such that the final battle never really had much emotional pull for me — other than the obvious ‘this is bad: never trust the government’. There’s also a constant sense of cheeky jollity on the sidelines, sparkling little bits of wordplay or hamminess, that made me feel like I was supposed to laugh at everyone. The performances are fine, as far as they are written at all (Maxine Peake is never bad), but too much of it is fairly one-note, so it’s only in small details that the film comes alive — fiddlers practising in the fields on the outskirts of town, a cat leaping around behind a mill owner fulminating at his workers taking time off, that kind of thing. It’s well-mounted, it will hopefully spur discussion and understanding, but it never really felt alive to me as a film.

Peterloo film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Mike Leigh; Cinematographer Dick Pope; Starring Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley; Length 154 minutes.
Seen at Vue Islington, London, Saturday 17 November 2018.

Harriet (2019)

As is traditional at this time of year, distributors are dumping a lot of their awards contenders into cinemas, along with other uncategorisable films as counter-programming perhaps or just because being winter, a lot of people are going to the cinema and taking more chances. As such, there’s no shortage of things I want to watch coming out this week. One is Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, though I’ve done horror films and I’ve done Australian films as themes already, so instead I’m going to focus on films set in the 19th century, starting with Harriet which is the release I was building up to last week with my biopic-themed week of reviews.


This is a curious film, made by the same director who did Eve’s Bayou (1997) but in an altogether different register, a by-the-numbers biopic replete with crescendoes of music to guide our way through the drama, and beautiful shots of the American countryside (around Virginia, I gather), the rising sun casting its glow over Cynthia Erivo-as-Harriet’s newly-freed face. Indeed, there is a constant suggestion throughout that the Divine presence is shining on Tubman, and she is seen frequently falling into reveries that suggest — like a modern Joan of Arc (who is even referenced at one point) — that God is talking to her, as she is inspired to lead slaves out of the South to freedom, avoiding slave-catchers and bounty-hunters along the way. That, though, may be the most interesting twist to the story (suggesting, after all, the director of the gloriously uncategorisable Black Nativity). It feels at times like this needed an even larger canvas, a multi-part structure perhaps, to tell its tale, as it rushes through Tubman’s Civil War exploits towards the end in just a couple of scenes. And though I can’t fault Erivo’s performance, she is curiously single-note as a character — and perhaps that’s the trouble with being an icon (or a saint) — while some of the supporting players don’t feel very much more substantial. Still, there are these gorgeous old-fashioned photos of the cast over the end credits that suggest an evident love for the characters and the period. Perhaps the film will have a valuable educational purpose, but at times it feels just a little inert.

Harriet film posterCREDITS
Director Kasi Lemmons; Writers Gregory Allen Howard and Lemmons; Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Clarke Peters; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Friday 22 November 2019.

The Irishman (2019)

Today sees the UK release of Harriet, but only two weeks ago we got a brand new biopic from Martin Scorsese. For that I did a themed week around very long films, but this week’s theme means I can revisit that film and post a review. I liked it. I gather some didn’t or felt it somehow less consequential in Scorsese’s oeuvre, but a lot of people have been gunning for him for some throwaway but no less deeply felt comments about superhero movies. Still, there’s a place for everything in modern cinema, and even if three-and-a-half hour gangster epics are mostly being made for streaming services now, it was still a solid box office draw given the very large packed cinema I saw this one in on a Saturday afternoon.


Look, I mean yes Scorsese has some good films (even some great ones) in all genres, but the stuff he’s always been best at capturing is the world of gangsters — a shady world of men closed away behind dark glasses in subterranean lairs — but those worlds have changed as he’s got older. Now the gangsters are old too, they’re old men who have lost things in life, maybe lost everything, lost their friends, alienated their families and are just these old men, dying off and being forgotten. No matter how powerful you were, how much influence you had, eventually people forget your name, your legacy and everything that made you important when you were in your prime, and that’s eventually what it feels like he’s getting at by the end of this film. The de-aging technology has been much discussed, but even when these men are presumably playing 20 or 30-year-olds, back in the 1950s, they still look like old men, move in a hulking slow way — I don’t think that’s wrong for the characters, but in practice they always seem old no matter what the time period is. The timelines are all mixed up, though, as events from one era rush into those from another, because this is a story being told from the perspective of that old, forgotten gangster, as snippets of events seem to hit him and pull him along, and for all of its length, the film is never slow or boring, provided you like this slow-burning vibe that Scorsese is going for. Pacino does his usual big thing, though increasingly looking like Steve Van Zandt as he gets older in the film (and Little Steven is in the film too, in a small part, playing some old school crooner on stage I believe), but the rest of the cast are all about intensity, not least Joe Pesci, who feels like the real standout in this ensemble. It’s a good film, is what I’m saying.

The Irishman film posterCREDITS
Director Martin Scorsese; Writer Steven Zaillian (based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt); Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto; Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham; Length 209 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 9 November 2019.

3 Tage in Quiberon (3 Days in Quiberon, 2018)

Biopics are often about famous men (and made by men too), but increasingly women’s stories have been brought to the screen, whether in big budget biopic dramas like Hidden Figures or in little indie chamber pieces like this one, which is about a film star towards the end of her career.


This is on the whole a pretty solid chamber drama (more-or-less) set at an upscale resort hotel in France in c1980, as Romy Schneider (Marie Bäumer) is rather unsuccessfully in detox, while a German journalist and photographer (Charly Hübner) comes to interview her, and her friend Hilde (Birgit Minichmayr) stops by to offer emotional support. Shot in crisp black-and-white, the performances are all very good, even if it does run a little long — there’s a lot of the interview in there, and we get a sense of the fragile state of Schneider’s psyche as she breaks down over the course of the drama. Hilde’s character is the least ostentatious, but Minichmayr has worked with Jessica Hausner and Maren Ade, so she knows how to hold the camera’s attention for even a repressed, very interior person. You can tell it’s set in the early-1980s because everyone smokes constantly, everywhere, in restaurants, bars, hotel rooms… just always lighting up. It’s not always obvious why this was made, but as a portrait of depression, and the bleak insularity of stardom, it feels compelling at times. Also, the (all too brief) Denis Lavant appearance is most welcome.

3 Days in Quiberon film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Emily Atef; Cinematographer Thomas W. Kiennast; Starring Marie Bäumer, Birgit Minichmayr, Charly Hübner; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 19 November 2018.

Two 2018 Biopics Directed by Women: On the Basis of Sex and Mary Queen of Scots

I don’t like to feature films I find a little disappointing, but both of these biopics failed to live up to the expectations created by the respective subjects and the many fine actors involved. Still, it’s worth shining some light on them as both are directed by women (albeit both written by men), and perhaps others will enjoy them more than I did. Both have a lot to commend them, after all, despite my tepid reviews.

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