उसकी रोटी Uski Roti (aka Our Daily Bread, aka A Day’s Bread, 1969)

Clearly low-budget and shot in black-and-white, this feels like a major title in the development of independent Indian filmmaking, part of India’s own New Wave, in which Mani Kaul was a central figure. It’s a small rural village drama between a handful of characters, but has a power to it that draws on contemporary European figures like Bresson.


I’ve not seen a huge deal of Indian cinema, beyond a few big titles and some contemporary commercial movies, so seeing things like this impresses upon me how huge a range there must be in the country. Uski Roti (variously translated as “Our Daily Bread” and “A Day’s Bread”, and which is variously listed as 1969 and 1970 depending where you look) is barely even narrative-driven, being often composed of a series of brief vignettes of almost Bressonian austerity, as a woman, Balo (Garima), makes food for her husband Sucha Singh (Gurdeep Singh), who drives a bus and only seems to show up very irregularly. In the meantime, we see him playing cards, while stories circulate about him having another woman in another village. The wife’s orbit is the home, where she works alongside her sister (Richa Vyas), who is being pestered by the husband’s brother. Aside from Bresson, the images are reminiscent of the stark village scenes in The Cow, a contemporary film from Iran. Slowly we get a sense of these characters and how their lives are, as the film just lays out these images of village life one after another. Clearly the 60s were a fertile time, and the stark simplicity of this film (a debut film, no less) suggests not just a great talent, but just the tip of the iceberg for filmmaking across the continent.

CREDITS
Director Mani Kaul मणि कौल; Writers Mohan Rakesh मोहन राकेश and Kaul; Cinematographer K.K. Mahajan ਕੇ ਕੇ ਮਹਾਜਨ; Starring Garima, Gurdeep Singh, Richa Vyas; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 9 June 2020.

Criterion Sunday 330: Au revoir les enfants (1987)

The title is taken from the final words of the priest, Father Jean, headmaster of the Catholic boarding school to which its protagonists are sent from Paris at the height of World War II, but it could as easily be bidding goodbye to them from where they live with their parents, or indeed to their innocence of course. The film builds up its picture of these wartime kids leaving the city, and shows the mysterious appearance of a few more kids to their classes early on, one of whom, Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö), sits next to our main protagonist, Julien (Gaspard Manesse), who can be taken as something of a stand-in for the director, given this story is based on his own experiences. It soon enough becomes clear that these new kids are Jewish, and so the tension builds and remains through otherwise quotidian scenes of playing with the class, or eating food together. Characters who seem to be on their side are revealed to have secret collaborationist tendencies, and even refined upper-class spaces seethe with barely-hidden prejudice. However, it’s all handled in a way that allows us as audience to come to that realisation with Julien, without overburdening the narrative, and the acting is naturalistic. The film is shot by Renato Berta, who worked with Straub/Huillet, and brings a certain starkness to the imagery, avoiding sentimentality. This is a very fine film about a bleak period in history.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Extras which had been on a supplementary disc as part of the original box set are included on the Blu-ray reissue, most notably the Charlie Chaplin short The Immigrant (1917), which is seen being screened to the kids within the film, with musical accompaniment from Irène Jacob in her first film role. I’m hardly a connoisseur of Chaplin’s films (I’ve only seen a small handful), but you can see a certain virtuosity in the staging of this, in which Chaplin’s familiar “Tramp” character is an immigrant on a ship bound for New York. We’re introduced to him leaning over the side while the ship rolls dramatically, suggesting he’s heaving his guts out, but the first gag reveals no, he’s just catching a fish. This continues with all kinds of physical comedy — there’s a particularly nice scene in the mess hall, where food slides between the immigrants — and a sweet bit where he anonymously helps out a young woman (Edna Purviance) who’s had her money stolen by a gambler whom he’s won it off. The ending with Purviance is rather abrupt, but it caps a film with a number of solid comedy setpieces.
  • Another extra is a five-minute visual essay about one of the more troublesome characters, an outcast named Joseph, trying to locate and understand what drives him, and the difficulties that drive him to his final decisive action in the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Louis Malle; Cinematographer Renato Berta; Starring Gaspard Manesse, Raphaël Fejtö, Francine Racette; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 June 2020.

Criterion Sunday 329: Lacombe Lucien (Lacombe, Lucien, 1974)

This World War II-era film about the young Frenchman of the title (non-professional actor Pierre Blaise) working on a rural farm who throws his lot in with the local Gestapo because he just wants to get a bit of respect from the locals still feels relevant, strangely enough. I’m pretty sure that the kind of impulses this film covers are still around today, albeit not so much directed towards collaborating with Nazis (except for those who are still drawn to that). But it covers well Lucien’s lack of imagination, combined with the lure of a bit of unearned power and a general contempt for everyone around him, as he moves first from asking about joining the Resistance to instead trying out the Nazi thugs, whose first step is to fit him up with a suit — from a local, only lightly tolerated, Jewish tailor, whose daughter (Aurore Clément) Lucien falls for. The moral quandaries that Lucien stumbles blank-faced through, never apparently altering his uncomprehending sneer and doughy teenage face, pile on as he navigates the complexities of wartime life, apparently oblivious to his own idiocy. It’s not just about French collaboration, which was a controversial topic at the time of course and continues to resonate (the idea that there were plenty of people perfectly happy to help the Nazis), but really it’s about teenage misdirection and the stupid decisions one can be led to make at that age, suggesting a lot of the hate that passes for discourse in the modern world too.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • All the extras are on a supplementary disc, which I shall comment on in the post for the box set.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writers Malle and Patrick Modiano; Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli; Starring Pierre Blaise, Aurore Clément, Holger Löwenadler; Length 138 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 26 June 2020.

Two 80s-Set Films by Pablo Trapero: El Bonaerense (2002) and The Clan (2015)

Both of these reviews, written back in 2016, are fairly short, but they deal with a filmmaker who’s considered one of the major forces in contemporary Argentinian cinema, crafting small dramas as easily as big family stories. The only other film of his I’ve seen was 2006’s Born and Bred, but his films have all been worth watching.


There’s a wash of grainy texture to El Bonaerense, a film set in the 1980s as far as I can tell (unless they really are as backwards as their morals), as a small town locksmith finds himself framed for a robbery. He’s swiftly swept up into the metropolitan police force (El Bonaerense, for Buenos Aires) by an uncle who’s owed a favour. That’s generally how the story proceeds, with even the ‘nice’ guys prone to taking bribes and administering a corrupt sense of justice. No one but the director comes out of this situation well.

Trapero remains a fine stylist for his more recent film The Clan, which is a true crime story also set in the heady Argentinean 1980s, and there are solid performances throughout. I gather that all crime films after Scorsese have to juxtapose their stories with cranked-up pop music, but if you’re going to do that, this film does it pretty well in following one Argentine family, who are up to all kinds of no good. Trapero seems interested in interrogating his country’s past via stories of low-lifers, and he keeps the films moving along a swift clip, with no little style to the way he frames and edits his work.

El Bonaerense film posterEl Bonaerense (2002) [Argentina/Chile/France/Netherlands]
Director Pablo Trapero; Writers Nicolás Gueilburt, Ricardo Ragendorfer, Dodi Shoeuer, Trapero and Daniel Valenzuela; Cinematographer Guillermo Nieto; Starring Jorge Román, Victor Hugo Carrizo; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 28 August 2016.

The Clan film posterEl clan (The Clan, 2015) [Argentina/Spain]
Director/Writer Pablo Trapero; Cinematographer Julián Apezteguia; Starring Guillermo Francella, Peter Lanzani; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Sunday 11 September 2016.

Global Cinema, Andorra: Nick (2016)

There aren’t a great deal of films from the small Pyrenees-set country of Andorra, as you might not be surprised to hear, and indeed there was only one I could find on streaming services, hence why I’m covering a rather low-budget thriller called Nick today. It’s all in English and it’s not very good, but perhaps along the way you might see a little of the natural beauty of the country.


Andorran flagPrincipality of Andorra
population 77,500 | capital Andorra la Vella (22k) | largest cities Andorra la Vella, Escaldes-Engordany (14.4k), Encamp (13.5k), Sant Julià de Lòria (7.5k), La Massana (5k) | area 468 km2 | religion Roman Catholicism | official language Catalan (català) | major ethnicities Andorrans (49%), Spanish (25%) | currency Euro (€) [EUR] | internet .ad

A tiny landlocked state in the eastern part of the Pyrenees mountain range, between France and Spain. Its name’s origin is unknown, but may relate to a pre-Roman tribe (the Andosins, mentioned in Polybius), or to the old word Anorra containing Basque word ur (“water”), or the Arabic al-darra (for “thickly-wooded place”), amongst others. The earliest settlement dates to 9500 BCE, and the Iberian tribe of the Andosins dates to the 2nd century BCE, though Charlemagne is traditionally credited as having granted the Andorrans a charter, after which it was ruled by the Count and later Diocese of Urgell. The political history is complicated but eventually it came to be under the French Empire, until independence in 1814. It accepted refugees from both sides in the Spanish Civil War and was neutral during World War II, though resistance causes organised there. Modernisation, including entry into the Council of Europe and the UN, took place in 1993, with currency union in 2006. It is governed by co-princes (one of whom is the President of France, the other the Bishop of Urgell), with a Prime Minister as head of government.

While it appears as if filming in Andorra is encouraged, there is very little indigenous cinematic production, perhaps unsurprising given the country’s size.


Nick (aka Outlier, 2016)

As I watched this because it’s a film made by and filmed in the tiny European country of Andorra, I suppose I was hoping for something that would give me an idea of the place. The filming locations appear to be around a small northern town called Ordino, and from what we see of it, it does look rather pretty, with winding little streets in the centre, and lots of people living in large houses with great views. The problem with the film, then, is the rest of it, and looming largest perhaps is the decision to make it in English, which, from my meagre research, does not appear to be a major language in the country (where, as you’ll see above, Catalan is the official language, while Spanish, French and Portuguese are the more usual second languages). In fact, just about everyone (aside from the moody Catalan-speaking work colleague of our lead character Margret, a police officer whose stepson has just arrived in town) seems to be transplanted from England, which gives it the feeling of a rather unloved drama pilot buried somewhere deep down in the programming of ITV. This perhaps would be fine were it not for the fact that most nuance seems to be lost in the script, perhaps gone astray somewhere in translation, as characters introduce each other clunkily (“I can’t believe you’re doing that, given your recent, troubling history of alcoholism” is something that isn’t quite said, but almost is, things along those lines) and bad decisions are met with worse reactions — which makes up the entire character of Margret (Molly Malcolm) for most of the last third of the film (she’s honestly just not very likeable or sympathetic). Even all that might even be passable were it not for the fact that the acting is unable to find any emotional truth in these characters, perhaps because there’s very little there to work with, though of course I shouldn’t expect too much from the younger actor (the titular Nick is just called upon to pout, which he does well, and also shout a lot at his stepsister, which isn’t convincing). Somewhere in here is a murder mystery with supernatural elements, set up quite compellingly, but it’s all rather messy and the impetus quickly gets rather lost. Andorra probably deserves better.

Nick film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer José Pozo; Cinematographer Juan González Guerrero; Starring Molly Malcolm, Cooper Crafar, Melina Matthews; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon), London, Tuesday 2 June 2020.

Sword of Trust (2019)

After news of director Lynn Shelton’s death broke last Saturday, like probably many cinephiles I watched a couple of her films the next day, revisiting Laggies and then her final film, made last year and which only trickled out onto UK streaming services at some point, presumably earlier this year. It’s a shaggy story but the easy charm of its leads and their interactions mean there’s no reason why it wouldn’t have made a perfectly good cinematic release, which events have conspired to prevent. Technically, it’s not her last feature film directorial credit (that would be comedy special Marc Maron: End Times Fun), but it’s the last one that marks her own work and distinctive voice, and features a fairly large acting role for her in the first five minutes of the film as the estranged partner of the protagonist.


This film further proves director Lynn Shelton’s adeptness with actors, eliciting some really fine character work via improvisational methods (so I gather), all within a loosely comedic framework. The themes of the film could’ve gone properly dark but it largely avoids that: the idea is that Jillian Bell’s character Cynthia inherits a sword from her recently deceased grandfather that he believed “proves” the South won the Civil War, whereupon she and pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) discover that there’s money to be made from this absurd notion. “What is this, Antiques Roadshow for racists?” Mel asks when shown a YouTube clip by his shop assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass) of an online vendor offering top dollar for items that “prove” their topsy-turvy thesis, and indeed there’s a running commentary about fake news and conspiracy theories throughout the film thanks to Nathaniel. The film never quite gets dragged down into the dark holes it skirts around, and ends up being a pretty low-stakes movie about small-scale grifters toying with ideas they all realise they shouldn’t really be getting involved with (it’s such a shaggy dog story that the involvement of guns towards the end of the film feels like a bit of a mis-step to me). Still, there’s such a lot of good character-led acting happening here, in such an easy unforced way, that it really makes you feel Shelton’s loss all the more; she had such a way with actors that for all the plot’s contortions, this film just feels like hanging out for an hour or two.

Sword of Trust film posterCREDITS
Director Lynn Shelton; Writers Shelton and Mike O’Brien; Cinematographer Jason Oldak; Starring Marc Maron, Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Jon Bass, Dan Bakkedahl; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (Sky Movies streaming), London, Sunday 17 May 2020.

Your Sister’s Sister (2011)

Moving back to proper indie films is another of Lynn Shelton’s small but well-crafted features dealing with relationship dramas in the Pacific Northwest. She always worked with the finest actors, and it really pays off at times (though it’s not my favourite of her films, preferring Laggies and Touchy Feely). I’ll cover her final film tomorrow.


I like plenty about the improvisational aesthetic that this film fits into, that world of “mumblecore”, low-key relationship drama, situations focusing on believable people in relatable circumstances. I like all three of the actors, and Lynn Shelton is a fine director. I did, however, feel like the set-up here was a little bit overwrought, as if a plot discarded from a telenovela or soap, which meant I found it difficult to connect with the characters. That said, of course, the acting was all superb, and it’s largely set in a striking part of the Pacific Northwest.

Your Sister's Sister film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lynn Shelton; Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mike Birbiglia; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 27 April 2017.

Outside In (2017)

I was unsure how to follow a week of American films directed by women, but the unexpected news of the death of director Lynn Shelton was on my thoughts this weekend. I’ve reviewed two of her films here already, Touchy Feely (2013) and Laggies (2014, known as Say When in the UK), the latter of which I think may be my favourite. I’m not much of a writer of obituaries, and I wouldn’t really know where to begin with her life, though she was a long-time resident of the Pacific Northwest and made most of her films there, having started as an editor and done a little acting, such as in Nights and Weekends. She was inspired when she was almost 40 by hearing Claire Denis talk about her work, to start making her own films. She only had a decade and a half of that since her 2006 debut feature, during which time she worked in both cinema and on many acclaimed TV shows (titles like Mad Men, The Good Place, GLOW and the recent Little Fires Everywhere adaptation), and was, I think, really starting to flourish creatively. Her death is a sad loss to independent American cinema, and if you want to know more you could do worse than listening to the long-form interview on WTF Podcast. But as surely the best way to honour a director is to watch their films, I thought I would devote a week to that — not just her films (because I wouldn’t have enough reviews for a week), and not just the so-called “mumblecore” of the mid-2000s, but all the low-budget filmmaking since then (along with films by directors who came out of that), anything which shares a similar devotion to character and setting, and inevitably will touch on several more of Shelton’s films in the process.


This is another of Lynn Shelton’s wonderful, quiet little films about people dealing with heavy stuff in a low-key way. Like many such films, it features one of the Duplass brothers (Jay), here playing a guy called Chris, back in his small Pacific Northwest town after being released from a fairly significant stretch in prison. While there, he connects with his old teacher Carol (Edie Falco), who’d been campaigning on his behalf. There are naturally a few revelations about why he’d been in prison, but these come out rather by-the-by — there are some conflicts, but no huge melodramatic reveals, just a slow drip-feed of feelings that help us connect all these characters, and give a rounded sense of them dealing with various traumas, whether readjustment to civilian life, or a marriage breaking up, or just the sense of being in a small town with nothing much to do.

Outside In film posterCREDITS
Director Lynn Shelton; Writers Shelton and Jay Duplass; Cinematographer Nathan M. Miller; Starring Jay Duplass, Edie Falco, Kaitlyn Dever, Ben Schwartz; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 13 July 2018.

Smooth Talk (1985)

It feels like there were a number of interesting films being directed by women in the American cinema of the 70s and 80s, which perhaps went a little under the radar and haven’t been so easy to find on home video. Smooth Talk was the narrative feature film debut of a long-time documentarian Joyce Chopra, and though the narrative feels like it may have been guided a little too strongly by the man doing the writing, it’s still great at building up a sense of place, and features the young Laura Dern.


As this opens, there are few films that can match the sheer 80s-ness of everything: the fashion and haircuts, the music (particularly on the soundtrack), the filmmaking techniques. It’s like a soap opera, and it paints a persuasive picture of a certain kind of Californian upbringing, hanging at the mall and being with your friends. Laura Dern is brilliant in the lead role, and does an effective job of conveying this young woman, hanging out late and being flirtatious, although every so often there are these creepy men hanging around. But then the movie takes a lurch into a weird terrifying stalker narrative, and Treat Williams is good but the film suddenly just seems to want to punish her for her sexuality (no less than any contemporary horror films would), and it becomes uncomfortable in more ways than perhaps the filmmaker intended. Still, there’s a lot of great stuff in here, not least the acting.

Smooth Talk film posterCREDITS
Director Joyce Chopra; Writer Tom Cole (based on the short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates); Cinematographer James Glennon; Starring Laura Dern, Treat Williams, Mary Kay Place; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 June 2019.

Down in the Delta (1998)

Last week I focused on female-directed new releases, and this week sees the (online) release of Never Rarely Sometimes Always by Eliza Hittman, a well-reviewed abortion drama from the woman who directed Beach Rats (I’ll get to that later this week). Anyway, this week I’ve decided to focus on a week of American films directed by women. I’ve done films directed by African-American women already, but I’ll kick off with the only film directed by the legendary poet and autobiographer Maya Angelou. In terms of availability, I had to order a DVD (a German one, as it happens) off eBay, but it was pretty cheap.


There’s a lot that’s odd and clunky about this film: it tells a story of a Chicago woman with drug problems who is barely fit to raise a family, rediscovering her roots in Mississippi, finding herself again and uncovering her potential to both change herself and move her own narrative towards redemption and positive change for her community. And if that sounds a little programmatic in its development then it certainly comes across that way watching the film. It’s directed (if not, crucially, written) by the author and poet Maya Angelou, though, so whatever it loses in technical efficiency, it gains a lot in feeling. This is a film, ultimately, that succeeds on the basis of its acting. However simplistic her character arc may be in some respects, Alfre Woodard is a real force and imbues it with a feeling that suggests something far deeper. There’s in general a range of acting talent all of which adds to this drama, and eventually it does get to me. However much I may try to resist, this does have its power and its own peculiar beauty.

Down in the Delta film posterCREDITS
Director Maya Angelou; Writer Myron Goble; Cinematographer William Wages; Starring Alfre Woodard, Al Freeman Jr., Esther Rolle, Mary Alice, Wesley Snipes; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 10 April 2020.