Bayang Ina Mo (Motherland, 2017)

A film about an enormous maternity hospital in Manila, it doesn’t take long to realise how crowded things are when you see expectant mothers rolled on to the edges of beds already occupied, even playing with their babies two to a bed as well. Indeed, by the end we see the hospital celebrating the birth of the 100 millionth Filipino, and you get a sense that a fair few of them have come through here. The lack of funds means those with weak babies — which is the area of the hospital this film largely focuses on — don’t get incubators but are instead encouraged to wear tube tops to hold their babies close to them as part of the ‘kangaroo medical care’ programme. The women are admonished for not using them 24/7, while a nurse on a microphone at the end of the ward dispenses life advice like a Greek chorus. From out of this chaos the film starts to introduce individual stories and eventually we get to know the situations of a few of the (very poor, very Catholic) women, some of whom are very young, others of whom have five or more kids already. We see them turn down free contraception for frustratingly vague (but obviously religious) reasons, and we see the struggle to come up with even the very small fees being charged, though some of them at least have supportive husbands who are allowed to visit briefly and get to wear the tube tops as well. Like the best documentaries it’s a fascinating look into a world most of us won’t see and it’s a compassionate one too.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Ramona S. Diaz | Cinematographers Clarissa delos Reyes and Nadia Hallgren | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 7 August 2017

Advantageous (2015)

The increasing dominance of Netflix as a source of home entertainment may be decried by many, but it does have the benefit of making more accessible a number of more niche titles that, outside their home country, may never get a cinematic screening and often don’t show up on home media formats at all. As an Asian-American authored science-fiction film, Advantageous has plenty of interest within it, occupying a similar kind of cerebral niche to the works of Shane Carruth, with a frosty understated detachment to the acting that made me think more of Todd Haynes’s Safe, or of Canadian cinema — though that might just as easily be a comparably low budget leading to a future world of largely sterile blankness. However, for a film presumably shot with few enough means, this all looks very polished. Gwen (Jacqueline Kim, also the co-writer) is an executive at a cosmetic surgery company, feeling pressured by the high cost of living in providing for her daughter’s education and whose job is under threat from younger women. Therefore she asks her boss (James Urbaniak) to take her as a test subject in her company’s experimental procedure to transfer a person’s consciousness into a younger body, thereby securing her job and the possibility of a brighter future for her daughter. Naturally there are complications, leading the film to delve into questions of the relative value of youth and racial whiteness within society (there are, unsurprisingly, limited choices as to available body types for the cosmetic procedure). There’s a sustained creepiness to the atmosphere which even encompasses some of the familiar guest actors (Jennifer Ehle and Ken Jeong both pop up, working quite against type), and provides plenty to think about in terms of where we’re all headed.


FILM REVIEW
Director Jennifer Phang | Writers Jacqueline Kim and Jennifer Phang | Cinematographer Richard Wong | Starring Jacqueline Kim, James Urbaniak | Length 90 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Saturday 23 January 2016

Lovely & Amazing (2001)

Everyone’s ever so slightly neurotic and has trouble living with themselves in Nicole Holofcener’s films (most recently in 2013’s Enough Said). I’d say they’re generally white and middle-class too, although here the matriarch Jane (Brenda Blethyn) has a young black adopted daughter Annie (Raven Goodwin). Anyway, if it’s a formula, it’s one that makes for enjoyable, watchable films, because Holofcener writes observant character studies of people who you imagine it might be difficult to live with, but not to watch on screen for 90 minutes. As ever, Catherine Keener is the film’s real star, here playing Michelle, a struggling artist who feels like she’s wasting her life, so takes a job at a photo booth with a tiny Jake Gyllenhaal. Meanwhile there’s her sister Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), an aspiring actress feeling fragile due to body image worries, no thanks to the superficial men she needs to court jobs from. It may not build to any big melodramatic climax, but for its brief running time it feels like it’s touching on feelings that are common and understandable and not always related in American comedies.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Nicole Holofcener | Cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian | Starring Catherine Keener, Brenda Blethyn, Emily Mortimer, Raven Goodwin, Jake Gyllenhaal | Length 91 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Sunday 10 January 2016

Criterion Sunday 60: Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata, 1978)

The two (unrelated) Bergmans — director Ingmar and film star Ingrid — brought together at last, the advertising copy no doubt blared. However, in terms of thematics, this is firmly within Ingmar’s frostier territory, as mother and daughter psychologically battle it out in a confined chamber drama. Ingmar was always feted for his ‘women’s pictures’, though the women are invariably under some kind of terrifying emotional onslaught, in this case Liv Ullmann’s Eva coming to terms with abandonment by her internationally-famous concert pianist mother Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman). Perhaps there’s an underlying angst of Ingmar’s relationship with his home country of Sweden (he’d been in exile in West Germany for a decade or so), but in any case nobody really comes out particularly well, especially once the red wine — and the accusations — starts flowing. There’s something that seems peculiarly 70s about having a disabled character as little more than a metaphor for the disfiguring effect of emotional dishonesty (or whatever), so this daughter Helena’s periodic appearance remains unsettling, but for the most part the film’s moody melodrama is well-handled and ends with a hope of some forgiveness in the offing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann | Length 99 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 November 2015

The Closer We Get (2015)

I’ve seen a couple of Scottish documentaries this year dealing with the late stages of terminal illness (the other was Seven Songs for a Long Life) and both have confounded my expectations in different ways. Perhaps it’s just because I’m not facing that finality yet myself, but I expected both to be difficult and depressing in ways that neither is. The more remarkable of the two, perhaps, is this one by Scottish multi-media artist Karen Guthrie, whose mother suffered a stroke which left her immobile. Documenting this altered new reality, interspliced with footage showing her mother before the stroke, seems to be the direction things are going until it becomes evident that this isn’t really a film about Guthrie’s mother at all, but about the apparently well-meaning and kindly father who lingers in the corner of most of the shots, making gruffly sardonic comments while doing sudoku puzzles, his head bowed almost permanently either through age or (perhaps?) some form of guilt. For all that Guthrie tries, her father remains a frustrating enigma as a character, but his life and his fractious relationship with his wife come to take centre stage as family secrets are unveiled. This method of drip-feeding revelations to the audience is not uncommon to the family documentary (Stéphanie Argerich did something similar in a film released here earlier this year), but when the audience cannot know the life being told, it has a greater effect. Therefore, I shan’t spoil anything, except to say that it leads the viewer down unexpected roads, with Guthrie’s ever-present voiceover helping to contextualise her own uncertain responses to her father’s life decisions.


© Somewhere

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Karen Guthrie | Cinematographers Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope | Length 91 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 12 November 2015

UKJFF: Princess (2014)

UK Jewish Film Festival logoThis screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival was introduced by a programmer, reading from the festival brochure.


This recent Israeli film makes a fascinating companion piece to The Diary of a Teenage Girl, released earlier this year. I loved that film intensely, but there’s definitely another side to that film’s coming-of-age story. Whereas Diary hardly depicted a healthy set of relationships (whether between the protagonist Minnie and her mother, Minnie and her mother’s boyfriend, or between the two adults), the film via its narrator seemed intent on locating some kind of power within these, however tenuous. In Princess, Adar (Shira Haas) is also alienated from her studies and starting to show interest in a wider society, particularly latching on to the androgynous Alan (Adar Zohar Hametz), but the persistent attentions of her mother’s boyfriend Michael (Ori Pfeffer), which begin innocuously and even playfully, are by several orders creepier and more difficult for her to repel than in the US film. Still, for all its similarities in set-up (and even the actors have a broad physical resemblance; at many junctures I could imagine Kristen Wiig in the same role as played here by Keren Mor), this is a quite different film in tone. There’s a persistent thread within the film of gender-fluid identities, recalling the French films of Céline Sciamma. Alan and Adar are filmed at times interchangeably, such that you’re not entirely sure at the start of the scene who we’re watching, given their broadly similar shape and hairstyle. Meanwhile, Michael teases each with gender-swapped names (he uses “Prince” for Adar). There’s a languid narrative and filmic style, as the film builds its characters incrementally, only slowly introducing the full of extent of Michael’s abusive relationship with the younger characters, and the way that Alma isolates herself from this. There may be no easy way forward for Adar, and no easy way for the film to conclude, the nurturing relationship between her and Alan does at least provide some small window of hope.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: UK Jewish Film Festival
Director/Writer Tali Shalom Ezer | Cinematographer Radek Ładczuk | Starring Shira Haas, Keren Mor, Ori Pfeffer, Adar Zohar Hanetz | Length 92 minutes || Seen at Everyman Hampstead, London, Wednesday 11 November 2015

No Home Movie (2015)

Re-watching Akerman’s œuvre over the last few years with the help of film collective À Nos Amours has been instructive in tracing some of the repeated themes and motifs of her work. A lot of those can be found again in this final film of hers, which returns once more to her mother Natalia as subject, a presence who has haunted so many of Chantal’s films, even as she hasn’t often appeared. Compared to some of her more recent work, there’s a warmth and playfulness to the conversations between Akerman mère and fille which make it positively comical for stretches of its running time. And yet this is a film about loss and death, both that of Natalia (who died at the end of 2014) and, inevitably, sadly, Chantal herself. That sense of finality is played out in the metaphor that opens and closes the film, of a strong wind buffeting the fragile signs of life in a barren landscape (presumably Israel), which finally dies out. But it’s equally brought to mind by the spectral resonances here of all her film work. There are long lateral tracking shots taken from a car of this dusty environment (recalling D’est), shots taken through net curtains (Là-bas), and plenty of long, often empty, fixed shots through doorways (Hôtel Monterey). The domestic space in which most of the film takes place, Natalia’s Brussels flat, recalls too Chantal’s most famous early works, particularly Jeanne Dielman (1975), and her earliest, 1968’s short film Saute ma ville. The kitchen of that first film — in the Akerman family home when Chantal was aged 18 — still oddly resembles the one where Natalia sits and eats her breakfast here even though it’s a different home, while of course Jeanne Dielman’s methodical household tidying is clearly based on Natalia. For all that it’s freighted with this latent emotional baggage, it’s only ever captivating to watch these images (at least, such was my experience), both those shot in the family home (home no longer, as the title testifies) and on a laptop from Chantal’s travels — an implicit critique surely of all those recent narratives that try to lay the blame at technology’s door for some social failing of human connection. But death remains painful and powerful and the final stretches are difficult to watch, as Akerman’s mercurial 50 years of filmmaking cuts to black.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: A Nos Amours Chantal Akerman Retrospective
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Chantal Akerman | Length 115 minutes || Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Friday 30 October 2015

LFF: Nil Battey Sannata (The New Classmate, 2015)

BFI London Film Festival This film was presented at the London Film Festival, introduced by its director who stayed for a Q&A afterwards.


The New Classmate is undoubtedly a polished and beautiful work for a first-time director and sits easily alongside other more prominent Indian films with larger budgets and bigger stars. It sets up an emotion-filled story of a single mother, Chanda (Swara Bhaskar), trying to raise her daughter Appu well, but finding it difficult because of all the work she is forced to do in order to afford schooling and put food on the table. Appu is failing at school, and seems to resent what she sees as her mother’s menial working life, leading Chanda to want to better herself as well, and so she enrols at the same school as her daughter. In a more simplistic film, perhaps, this is where comedy might ensue, and although there’s plenty of light-heartedness on display (and a broad comic turn from the school’s principal), the mother’s move into her daughter’s school setting is actually the catalyst for some far more nuanced drama around what it means to succeed at school and how this can lead to dreams of a better life. For all that is excellent in the film, and particularly Bhaskar’s spirited performance (much though she looks too young to have a teenage daughter), it does all feel a little bit sanitised at times. Their world seems to be one of grinding misery and poverty, but it’s shot in a way more befitting the director’s advertising background, with a sheen of sumptuous colours and beautiful textures — but then again, this is unashamedly a family-friendly melodrama which follows a traditional structure of conflict and resolution. Perhaps instead it’s best to embrace it as a mother’s emotional journey in order to protect and nurture her daughter.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival
Director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari | Writers Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, Nitesh Tiwari, Neeraj Singh and Pranjal Chowdhary | Cinematographer Gavemic U Ary | Starring Swara Bhaskar | Length 96 minutes || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 14 October 2015

Mia madre (2015)

For all my filmgoing, I’d never seen a film by feted Italian director Nanni Moretti, though this seems like a good one to start with. As far as I can tell, his style is to make personal, often autobiographical films, and Mia madre (“my mother”) is little different, except that the director stand-in is played by Margherita Buy rather than Moretti himself. She’s making a film that reflects a certain crisis in capitalism, as workers protest lay offs by an unfeeling corporate boss (it’s not dissimilar to Godard and Gorin’s Tout va bien in some ways). However, it’s a difficult shoot, not helped by the American actor playing the boss (John Turturro) having a terrible time remembering his lines, and having only a patchy grasp of Italian. But more troubling even than this is that Margherita’s mother is dying. Moretti is still in there as an actor, as Margherita’s brother Giovanni, but the focus remains on Margherita, and Buy does excellent work in finding the right tone, a sort of detached malaise emphasised by the camerawork and aspects of the style that seem to isolate her even amongst other people. For all that’s going wrong, though, it’s not a depressing film exactly. Turturro as the inept actor Barry, who is fond of retailing a fictitious anecdote about working with Kubrick, is a comic highlight, and his energetic mugging contrasts with the scenes of the mother ailing in a hospital.


© 01 Distribution

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Nanni Moretti | Writers Nanni Moretti, Valia Santella and Francesco Piccolo | Cinematographer Arnaldo Catinari | Starring Margherita Buy, Nanni Moretti, John Turturro | Length 107 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 29 September 2015

Que horas ela volta? (The Second Mother, 2015)

I don’t have much of a handle on Brazilian cinema, but the examples I’ve seen seem to promise a laidback outdoor-living lifestyle riven with poverty but hardly hopelessness. Maybe that’s the kind of thing that makes it to screens outside the country, but The Second Mother, while not contradicting this — it’s about a domestic servant — at least gives a bit more ground-level social context. It reminds me of the Colombian film Gente de bien, released earlier this year, in the way it subtly but brutally dissects class tensions. In that film the son of poor parents goes to live with a rich family over the summer and is gradually shunned (a swimming pool is again a key locus of tension), but here the effects of class are both more subtle and more damaging. Val (Regina Casé, quite a big star in her native country) is a live-in servant at the home of a rich São Paulo couple, introduced caring for their young son before we flash forward a decade to when he’s applying for university. In many ways, as the English title suggests, she’s more of a mother to him than his real one, Barbara (seen only as a harried professional woman, conducting TV interviews or hosting parties), and there’s a genuine tender fondness between them. But, it turns out, Val has a daughter, Jéssica (Camila Márdila), whom she’s not seen in a decade, who is coming to the big city to apply to become an architect. It’s when Jéssica arrives that things start to break apart, because she doesn’t have her mother’s internalised acceptance of their place in the pecking order, and after seeing the cramped basement conditions her mother is housed in, is happy to accept a spacious guest room from the family’s father Dr Carlos, and swim in their pool — lines which Val would never cross and which she gets increasingly agitated over, even as Barbara and Carlos remain polite (though in the mother’s case through ever more obviously gritted teeth).

All the drama really is in the little gestures, social faux pas, which become a series of small details that build — both for the viewer and, it turns out, for Val — into a damning indictment of privilege. Aside from the swimming pool, there’s also, for example, a set of coffee cups with coffee pot which Val gets for Barbara on her birthday, a present you get the sense Val can ill afford but feels compelled to give on such an important occasion (but also because she wants to ask if her daughter can come to stay for a short while, a question which is awkwardly brushed off initially). Immediately we sense that this gift is tacky in Barbara’s eyes and, though gracious, she quickly hides it away, even hustling Val back into the kitchen when she tries to use it at a dinner party, preferring something a bit more Scandinavian. The film is filled with this kind of observation, making it, in its small way, something of a domestic horror story, albeit one in which the most vicious thing that happens is that boundaries are enforced between the servants’ quarters and where Barbara spends her time. Or perhaps more vicious still is the way that a mother can grow up not even knowing her own daughter because of the work she does. The film’s original title translates as “What time will she come home?”, a plaintive plea to Val from the young son at the start about his mother, but which ends up applying just as much to Val’s relationship to Jéssica. It all makes you wonder about the feel-good angle of the film’s poster, though that does come after a fashion. And most welcome it is too.


© Universal Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Anna Muylaert | Cinematographer Bárbara Alvarez | Starring Regina Casé, Camila Márdila | Length 112 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Wednesday 16 September 2015