Criterion Sunday 148: Ballada o soldate (Ballad of a Soldier, 1959)

It seems to me that f you’re going to do an “anti-war” film, this is the best kind of template. Without any speechifying or overt statements, Ballad of a Soldier makes its position clear about how wrenching and difficult war can be, by the simple expedient of its unadorned story. A simple country lad (Vladimir Ivashov), thrust into a pan-European conflict, travels back home just to hug his mother for one last time. It’s sweet without being sentimental, and affecting without being bleak or angry.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Grigori Chukhrai | Writers Valentin Yezhov and Grigori Chukhrai | Cinematographers Vladimir Nikolayev and Era Savelyeva | Starring Vladimir Ivashov, Zhanna Prokhorenko | Length 88 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday

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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

Room (2015)

As with The Babadook a year or two ago, I’m again prompted to wonder how this film plays to parents and whether it doesn’t allegorise some of the fears and traumas involved in parenting. I open this way because of all the things the film touches on, it seems to me that the experience of being held captive by a rapist (which is, after all, sadly a real-life torn-from-the-headlines occurrence) is relatively low on the film’s list of interests, though it probably covers more of a realistic emotional arc than, say, the TV show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But I get that this is largely because the real-life cases are sensationalised media events, and Room is more interested in how that experience captures an (admittedly dark) side of both being a mother and, to a certain extent, being a woman within a society that empowers this kind of emotional (here literal) imprisonment.

So, yeah, it’s pretty bleak to watch — for all that it eventually opens out a bit — but most of what’s good about the film is in the script and in the acting, especially Brie Larson as the ‘Ma’ (her name is Joy, it turns out). It’s just that in the telling there’s an insistence to certain elements of the directorial style. It’s not merely that I dislike voiceovers (here, it’s the childlike wonder and naïveté of Jacob Tremblay’s Jack who does the duties), but in distancing itself from the kind of domestic horror that The Babadook or We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) did so well, it layers on rather too thickly a sweeping orchestral score and questing camera movements. The film ends up pushing emotional buttons as voraciously as González Iñárritu, which is to say I imagine it’s going to win quite a few awards, but for me that undermines what it’s trying to achieve in the script. Perhaps I just expected a bleaker and nastier film, but then if this is a film about the fears of parenthood — of inevitably having to let your children into an understanding of the worst of human experience — it’s a film about warmth and security too.


Room (2015)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Lenny Abrahamson | Writer Emma Donoghue (based on her novel) | Cinematographer Danny Cohen | Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay | Length 117 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 18 January 2016

Suzanne (2013)

I think there’s something to be said for Little White Lies‘ marking system, with separate marks for ‘anticipation’, ‘enjoyment’ and ‘in retrospect’, as it really gets towards a sense of the different stages of appreciating a film (though perhaps the third mark can only be filled in a few weeks or months later). In trawling through online streaming content for something to watch of an evening, there’s often little enough to arouse any anticipation, but however unassuming it looks from a mere description, Suzanne turns out to be a really very well-judged and interesting film. Ostensibly it presents a character study of the wayward daughter to single father Nicolas (François Damiens) and older sister to Maria (Adèle Haenel), as she grows up over the course of 20+ years, rebounding from one major life decision to another. However, the film largely eschews psychologising or explanatory dialogue, as we see only disconnected fragments from her life — a few minutes of her childhood, some poor teenage decisions involving her getting pregnant, moving out of town, being in jail — although frequently landing on some telling moment. The film is like a photo album of Suzanne’s life, linked by the power of Sara Forestier’s cagy performance in the central role. It’s a fascinating narrative strategy, and by making Suzanne something of an absence at the film’s heart, it puts more emphasis on the dynamics within her family, as well as giving the audience a little more work to do, but Suzanne’s dramatic arc definitely satisfies as a story of a person learning to live with themself and others.


FILM REVIEW
Director Katell Quillévéré | Writers Mariette Désert and Katell Quillévéré | Cinematographer Tom Harari | Starring Sara Forestier, François Damiens, Adèle Haenel | Length 90 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 4 January 2016

We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011)

This is basically a horror film, trading in psychological terror with a distinctly European sensibility of long takes, artfully composed alienation, and a mounting sense of dread, as via flashbacks we learn about the murderous crimes Kevin has committed. Kevin is Eva’s son, and Eva is really the linchpin of the film, so it’s just as well Tilda Swinton is such a good actress. There are hints that she’s failed as a parent — too committed to working, living in a large unpleasantly empty and sterile home with her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), and not good at empathising with her children — but those are just suggestions, perhaps more easily attributed to the film’s horror themes, in which failing as a parent is a more terrifying prospect than being the victim of a mass murderer. The problem I have with the film is that the ‘evil’ of Kevin seems rather one-note, with Ezra Miller (and his counterparts playing Kevin as a child) called on to perform a very limited range of glaring nastiness towards his family and those around him. At a certain level, it seems like an easy way to keep the film at a distance, thought that’s of a piece with its filmmaking style I suppose. In any case, for all its stylishness, I certainly wouldn’t want to watch this film if I were a parent.


FILM REVIEW
Director Lynne Ramsay | Writers Lynne Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear (based on the novel by Lionel Shriver) | Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey | Starring Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly | Length 112 minutes || Seen at home (blu-ray), London, Monday 26 October 2015

The Wolfpack (2015)

At the heart of this new documentary is a fascinating subject, the Angulo family, whose parents have raised their seven children largely in insolation from the city around them (New York). It brings to mind films like Werner Herzog’s Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, 1974), and this idea of children raised away from any socialising influence — whether kept in isolation like Hauser, or raised in the wild by animals, or just cut off from mainstream society like the Amish — is a commonly recurring trope in fiction. So to have found a real-life example in the middle of such an enormous city is a coup for director Crystal Moselle, who has clearly filmed them over the course of some time.

The oldest of the children, Mukunda (their names are taken from Hindu scripture) is now 20, and he tells of how he first left their Lower East Side apartment on his own at the age of 15, and promptly got arrested for his choice of papier mâché mask. As it turns out he and his brothers (the youngest Angulo child, the daughter Visnu, is largely absent) have had much of their socialisation via films, so their dressing up and recreating the films (most notably those of Quentin Tarantino) is the hook that The Wolfpack uses for its poster and trailer. However, there are other questions that are soon raised, like the role of the family’s mother and father, the latter of whom is not particularly well-loved by his children it turns out. This is for good reasons, of course — from their point of view he’s kept them isolated for their whole lives and had controlled their access to the outside world — though the film’s underlying sadness is that his fear of the dangers the outside world poses are quite understandable at a certain level. Both parents after all had come from rural backgrounds and if they’d not been trapped by poverty into their current situation, one senses events might have turned out differently.

The attitudes of both the parents and their children are fleshed out over the film’s running time, as the parents must start to accept their children are coming of age and have a natural curiosity about the world outside. It’s never quite made clear how active a role Moselle herself has taken in this process, or at what exact point in their lives she entered, but there’s a sense a lot of the emotional maturation the film covers had already taken place. Moselle deftly structures her film, though, only slowly adding in the stories of the family’s mother and father. Whatever questions one might reasonably pose (I wonder about how the daughter feels she fits into the family’s dynamic, as just one example), it remains a compelling study of an unusual family dynamic.


© Magnolia Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Cinematographer Crystal Moselle | Length 90 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 23 August 2015

Westen (West, 2013)

A few years ago, Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006) achieved great success in depicting how life was lived in former-Communist East Germany, and now Westen builds on similar themes. Our protagonist is Nelly (Jördis Triebel), who at the start has gained permission somehow to leave East Germany with her son. After a stressful few hours having to undergo humiliating bureaucratic procedures, she makes it across and signs up at a refugee centre, where she is given a bed and a chance at freedom, but little more. Indeed, she finds herself going through much the same bureaucratic procedures, leading her to snap at her interviewers that this is exactly why she had left the East. The drama is located in Nelly’s struggle to gain the freedom she imagined she’d find in the West for her and her son — a matter of passing official inspections and gaining elusive stamps — where instead she encounters only the same petty mindedness and paranoia over Stasi spies that she felt before. There are some subplots of relationships she has with various men within the refugee compound, and her sometimes-fraught relationship with her son, soured by the paranoia she feels, but the film is focused most of all on Nelly herself. Being on screen for much of the film, Triebel does an excellent job in conveying a sense of her trepidation and paranoia — sometimes with very little in the dialogue itself, for she feels guarded and cagy in her interactions, an understandable holdover from her time in the East. The filmmaking style takes a leaf from the Dardenne brothers in its unmoored handheld camera style, often finding itself lagging behind the forward-moving figure of Nelly, though it’s not quite as relentlessly applied as in, say, Rosetta. A very fine drama, all told, and well worth watching.


© Main Street Films

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Christian Schwochow | Writer Heide Schwochow (based on the novel Lagerfeuer by Julia Franck) | Starring Jördis Triebel | Cinematographer Frank Lamm | Length 102 minutes || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Monday 15 June 2015

Mommy (2014)

There’s a scene towards the end of this excoriating French-Canadian family melodrama in which Diane (Anne Dorval), the mother of the title — after a fashion, which I’ll explain later — imagines the possibilities for her tearaway teenage son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) as he grows up. As a scene, it’s beautiful and uplifting, shot in a hazy nostalgic glow, and yet utterly heartbreaking, because it lands after about two hours of coming to grips with Steve and all his emotional problems, and by this point we realise that it’s an impossible dream.

Xavier Dolan, the director of Mommy is only in his mid-20s, but this is an utterly assured and properly cinematic film, filled with the kinds of juxtapositions and coups de théâtre that only the most accomplished of directors could pull off. It starts off with one such, as Diane’s car is sideswiped at a busy intersection, and the film doesn’t let go from then on. The square framing is another flourish, which almost seems to trap its characters, but at a key later moment it dramatically opens up, all too briefly, to suggest a hope that the film’s events don’t always bear out.

The film’s primary focus is on the home that Diane (“Die” for short) makes with her angry son, just returned from a stint in juvenile detention, and with their neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clément) they form a mutually-supportive and slightly askew family unit. Diane is Steve’s mother, but the title refers to a piece of bling that Steve acquires for her — in a bravura scene that seems to vacillate moment to moment from tenderness to violence — naming a role that is as much in Steve’s imagination as within Diane’s ability. Certainly, Steve has what one might call ‘issues’ that are at times uncomfortably Oedipal, but for the most part the film is resolutely focused on the mother figure Diane, who starts out as a hectoring bully but ends up being a multi-faceted character that we genuinely feel warmth and understanding towards.

Mommy is one of the stand-out films I’ve seen so far this year. It heralds the further maturation of a prodigious cinematic talent, and is well worth checking out.


© Les Films Séville

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Xavier Dolan | Cinematographer André Turpin | Starring Anne Dorval, Antoine Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément | Length 138 minutes || Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 24 March 2015

Admission (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Paul Weitz | Writer Karen Croner (based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz) | Cinematographer Declan Quinn | Starring Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, Nat Wolff, Michael Sheen | Length 97 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Friday 14 June 2013 || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable


© Focus Features

This new film pairing Tina Fey and the seemingly unaging Paul Rudd has come in for some fairly disappointing reviews since it was released in the States earlier this year, but I rather liked it. It certainly isn’t a spectacular example of the romance genre (terrain familiar to both lead actors), but its virtues are solid and it has a good supporting cast of characters to enliven proceedings.

As it happened, I saw this back to back with Stuck in Love, another film set amongst bookish intellectuals inhabiting the cynical north-east of the United States, and if it’s possible Admission is even less nuanced with its character arcs. Fey plays Portia, a cynical, uptight and childless middle-aged admissions clerk at Princeton University, while Rudd is John Pressman, a free-spirited progressive educationalist with an adopted family whose star student Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) wants to go to Princeton. So far, so predictable, and in truth there’s little that shakes the viewer from that early assessment. Portia shelters herself from family commitments within her protective Ivy League enclave, while Pressman flits around the world engaging with developing communities to much the same end, so there’s little surprise in way their journey progresses. It’s never quite clear why Jeremiah wants to go to Princeton or whether this kind of elitist education is genuinely worthwhile, but it allows for some gentle comedy at the clash of cultures between the Ivy League and the liberal do-gooding of Pressman’s academy (which incidentally doesn’t seem to be at all academically rigorous in its methods).

Whatever its merits, it is worth noting that Admission is a comedy only in the broadest sense: there are few laugh-out-loud moments. In keeping with its pretentious milieu, the comedy in it is far more about wry smiles and occasional embarrassment such as at Portia’s ineptitude with the younger generation. Continue reading “Admission (2013)”

Adore (aka Two Mothers, aka Perfect Mothers, 2013)

UPDATE: Since the review below was written, this movie has been renamed Adore for the English-speaking market (or Adoration in some places). The title in France was Perfect Mothers. I’ve updated the review’s title to reflect this change.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW: French Film Week || Director Anne Fontaine | Writer Christopher Hampton (based on the novella The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing) | Cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne | Starring Robin Wright, Naomi Watts, Ben Mendelsohn | Length 100 minutes | Seen at Gaumont Convention, Paris, Thursday 4 April 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Gaumont

As an Australian/French co-production (and entitled Perfect Mothers when I saw it in Paris), it’s tempting to credit the naturalistic acting style to the former, and the overwrought romantic storyline to the latter, but perhaps it’s unfair to suggest that Australian cinema shies away from dealing with rather twisted affairs of the heart. That certainly isn’t the case here.

The story, just to set it up briefly, deals with the eponymous mothers, Lil (played by Naomi Watts) and Roz (played by Robin Wright), whose entire lives appear to have been spent in each other’s company in the same sleepy seaside Australian town. In the space of the credits sequence, the film skips forward from their adolescence playing in the sea, to their own children (both boys) playing in the sea around the time of the funeral of Lil’s husband, to when their boys are fully grown, all on the same stretch of light-saturated beach. It’s all presented as fairly idyllic — sitting out by the sound of the sea sipping sauvignon blanc in the sunshine — and we never really get much of a sense of the rest of the town (except that there’s an office where Lil works, and a small theatre where Roz’s husband and son work). The point at which it all starts to unravel a bit, and where the (French) title gets its ironic sting, is when it becomes apparent that their respective children have developed romantic attachments towards the other’s mother, and that these feelings are reciprocated.

However one feels about the somewhat incestuous theme of the film, there is real delight to be had in the acting, which feels unforced and fresh. Wright’s Australian accent only occasionally falters, and both she and Watts do really well with the uncomfortable subject matter. It’s to the film’s (and the actors’) credit that it’s the relationship between the two mothers, rather than that with the (rather bland) sons, which anchors the story and feels like the primary interest of the film.

The location is well-chosen too, since it has to be convincing in its hold over the characters. Continue reading “Adore (aka Two Mothers, aka Perfect Mothers, 2013)”