For Sama (2019)

With this review, I’m returning to two theme weeks, primarily my one focusing on Arab cinema, because this is a documentary filmed in Syria during its (ongoing) Civil War. However, it’s also partly a recent British film directed by a woman, due to its funding and Al-Kateab’s work for British news media. It’s certainly a striking and urgent piece of filmmaking.


There have been a number of documentaries in recent years about refugees, especially as these have impacted Europe, but relatively few films about where these refugees come from (though The Day I Lost My Shadow springs to mind). I imagine this is largely because there hasn’t been persuasive footage of the situations in the kinds of poor, war-stricken countries that generate so many refugees — and documentaries thrive on nothing so much as imagery — but this film has plenty of that. It’s a first-person narration dedicated to the filmmaker’s newborn daughter, born to shelling and constant blood and destruction in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, where her husband (Sama’s father) is one of the city’s leading doctors, mainly because he’s one of the few still there helping to run a hospital. It’s not, needless to say, a happy scene and you may be fairly warned that there is a significant amount of footage of dead and dying people, and particularly children — because Assad’s civil war, backed by the Russian planes we see involved in bombing runs, is not one without a lot of human casualty. Amongst the carnage there are these little stories of hope, a baby cut from his mother who miraculously survives, or indeed the story of the title character, young Sama — and one gets the sense that without stories such as these, the misery and death would probably be unbearable. It’s all very heartfelt stuff, and wrenching too.

For Sama film posterCREDITS
Directors Waad Al-Kateab وعد الخطيب and Edward Watts; Cinematographer Al-Kateab; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 17 September 2019.

Two Films by Youssef Chahine: Saladin the Victorious (1963) and The Land (1969)

I’m spending a week looking at Arabic language cinema, from around the Arabic-speaking world, stretching from North Africa across the Middle East. One of the key early figures in modern Arab cinema is the work of Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, and indeed Egypt has always been the powerhouse cinematic country of the whole region, with a range of popular cinema rivalling that of Bollywood to the East. Chahine integrates influences from France and the Soviet Union, amongst other traditions, creating some of the greatest works of modern cinema and he has certainly been influential in Arab cinema. I’ve already reviewed one of his earlier films, the excellent melodrama Cairo Station (1958), though these 60s works feel like quite different films.

Continue reading “Two Films by Youssef Chahine: Saladin the Victorious (1963) and The Land (1969)”

Three Films by Lee Man-hee: The Marines Who Never Returned (1963), A Day Off (1968) and Assassin (1969)

These three films all feature on a box set put out by the Korean Film Archive, though many of their film restorations (not just these three, but many others) are available to view for free on an official website and a YouTube channel, which I’d recommend checking out if you want to follow up on classic Korean cinema. As for the director, I can’t give you much information. His name is sometimes transliterated as Lee Man-hui, and he was born in Seoul in 1931 and studied there too. He started out in the industry as an actor in the 50s, but had graduated to directing in 1961 and as a director had a prodigious output for much of the 1960s, making up to 10 films in a single year (1967 seems to have been his most prolific). He died at the age of 43 from liver cancer, in 1975.

Continue reading “Three Films by Lee Man-hee: The Marines Who Never Returned (1963), A Day Off (1968) and Assassin (1969)”

Criterion Sunday 173: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Powell and Pressburger were certainly at the height of their powers in the 1940s, judging from the glorious beauty of their finest works in this period. Blimp surely ranks as one of them, even if it were just for some of the eye-catching dresses modelled by Deborah Kerr, playing basically all the women in the two heroes’ lives. For a film made mid-war, it’s surprisingly lacking in jingoistic patriotism (which may account for some of the rather frosty contemporary reviews). Indeed, it has a ‘good German’ as a lead (Anton Walbrook), inveighing against the Nazis, and even hints that crippling post-World War I reparations may have driven Germany towards Nazism, as chummy Oxbridge types bray and laugh while making vague sympathetic noises towards the defeated Germans back home in Blighty. And whatever blustery old fuddy-duddy Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) may think constitutes English fair play when it comes to war, the film’s core tenet is that we need to get over that and learn to punch Nazis. Surely a timely message that we should all still get behind.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Cinematographer Georges Perinal; Starring Deborah Kerr, Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook; Length 163 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 31 March 1999 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 September 2017).

Criterion Sunday 156: Hearts and Minds (1974)

Undoubtedly this is a powerful piece of filmmaking about a war (the Vietnam War), though its lessons can be applied to many subsequent conflicts. To see former generals note that the strategy of continuing a war that killed so many people barely had any effect on the resolve of the native people to keep fighting against the foreign incursion is surely something that should have been remembered after 2001 as well, but the nature of modern warfare — the way it is played out in the media, the access they are given — has fundamentally changed. There are sequences here that are scarcely believable, like the soldiers filmed joking with each other while with respective women at a brothel. But there are other sequences — interviews with veterans, generals and politicians alike — that shed light on the attitudes that went into the war: a desperate desire to hold onto resources, and to keep face with allies even as the philosophy that propelled them to intervene (the Domino Theory about the spread of Communism) was largely debunked. The filmmaker here uses all the now familiar techniques of cannily editing footage to prove the institutional lies of the American forces, as well as occasional editorial asides that almost joke with the audience (a father who’s lost a son hymning the leadership of Nixon while a subtitle pops up at just this point to say “filmed in early 1973”). It remains a relevant film and an excellent one, for all the bias one might accuse it of, not least for the interview with the bomber pilot that runs through and concludes the film, which is beautifully poignant and powerful.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Davis; Cinematographer Richard Pearce; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 May 2017.

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

It seems to me that if 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 Григо́рий Чухра́й; Writers Valentin Yezhov Валентин Ежов and Chukhrai; Cinematographers Vladimir Nikolayev Владимир Николаев and Era Savelyeva Эра Савельева; Starring Vladimir Ivashov Влади́мир Ивашо́в, Zhanna Prokhorenko Жанна Прохоренко; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 April 2017.

LFF 2016 Day Nine: Prevenge and The Stopover (both 2016)

Two films after work on Thursday 13 October, both of them very solid outings, and seen in the same cinema, but with quite a different vibe. The first was a rammed, sold out house who responded with glee to the film, whereas the second was very much a half-empty auditorium with a sense of detached weariness (maybe that’s me just projecting onto French arthouse lovers, or maybe I was just grumpy because of the smell of someone’s kebab behind me).


Prevenge (2016)

Prevenge (2016, UK, dir./wr. Alice Lowe, DOP Ryan Eddleston)
At this point in my life there are plenty of films which only remind me of other films, and that’s fine, but it’s nice to see something that feels a bit unexpected. Prevenge is a film made by a pregnant woman about a pregnant woman who is systematically taking her murderous revenge on her perceived enemies (to say more would probably constitute spoilers), and it somehow feels a bit new. Both those pregnant roles are taken by Alice Lowe as director/lead actor, who threw the project together very quickly for biologically obvious reasons. In its blend of black comedy and jagged emotional turmoil, it is never unwatchable and sometimes both affecting and very funny, and Lowe is particularly good at turning suddenly from chattiness to a deathly unsettling stare. It seems to be allegorising aspects of motherhood, but it’s also good fun if you can stand a little bit of gore — a staple of both horror cinema and maternity.


Voir du pays (The Stopover, 2016)Voir du pays (The Stopover) (2016, France/Greece, dir./wr. Delphine Coulin/Muriel Coulin, DOP Jean-Louis Vialard)
This is a film about French soldiers on the way home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, who go on a three-day retreat in Cyprus on what their army bosses call “decompression”, though I can’t think of a word further away from what happens in this film. Instead it’s very much a pressure cooker environment, as the soldiers go through group therapy reliving key incidents in their recent tour in which it quickly becomes clear that lives were lost and bad decisions were taken that various members of the group feel either responsible for or powerless in the face of. It’s also a film about women in the military and the specific pressures on them, not just in their job but especially from their male colleagues. Throughout there’s a tense atmosphere, as if hostilities are about to kick off at any moment, emphasised by the tight shot framing and the glass prison mise en scène of the luxury hotel, whose vistas promise such illusory freedom. In truth there are a lot of ideas kicking around here that never quite (for me) come together fully, but the actors are all excellent, not least Ariane Labed as Aurore — the reason I booked a ticket to the see the film in the first place, for she is among the finest currently working — and her tightly-wound friend Marine (played by a singer known as Soko).

Criterion Sunday 87: Алекса́ндр Не́вский Alexander Nevsky (1938)

By 1938, Sergei Eisenstein was already a celebrated filmmaker (not least for his masterful 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin), but one increasingly held at arm’s length by the Soviet authorities. His previous film, Bezhin Meadow (1937, see extras below), was suppressed, so on the grand patriotic canvas of Alexander Nevsky, he was assigned a co-director (Dmitri Vasilyev) and a co-screenwriter to keep him in check. They needn’t have worried because he turns in a very watchable epic about the resistance mounted against the invading Teutons by the reassuringly ordinary Prince Alexander of the title (Nikolai Cherkasov). Of course, given the historical context, one can’t help but draw the parallels between the noble suffering Soviet people and the threat posed by Hitler’s Nazis (and Roman Catholics, besides) invading from the West. Nevsky is introduced as an ordinary man, fishing in a lake among the people, though as soon as the Mongols ride up to address him, he’s all arms akimbo against the sky, the heroic everyman who shines as a beacon of hope and strength. Indeed, the presentation of Nevsky is consistently as heroic as one can imagine, almost to the point of self-mocking campness, and perhaps this is Eisenstein’s point. In any case, the film moves ahead with a fairly straightforward narrative, and culminates with a frenzied battle scored to Prokofiev’s music, with a little romantic subplot along the way involving Nevsky’s compatriots Vasili (Nikolai Okhlopkov) and Gavrilo (Andrei Abrikosov).

Criterion Extras: There’s a significant section on Eisenstein’s lost previous film, with a reconstruction of it from what materials remain (the first and last frames of each shot), which can’t help but be a shadowy approximation of the original but does at least prove it had some gloriously beautiful images.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Sergei Eisenstein Сергей Эйзенштейн and Dmitri Vasilyev Дмитрий Васильев; Writers Eisenstein and Pyotr Pavlenko Пётр Павле́нко; Cinematographer Eduard Tisse Эдуа́рд Тиссэ́; Starring Nikolai Cherkasov Никола́й Черка́сов, Nikolai Okhlopkov Никола́й Охло́пков, Valentina Ivashova Валентина Ивашёва [as “Vera Ivashova”]; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 3 April 2016).

Drone (2014)

The contention that the aggression (if not strictly speaking “wars”) undertaken by the US government take an unacceptable toll on not just the lives of civilians around the world, but on basic human liberties, is surely not much contested at a broad level. In this film, it’s the use of the titular unmanned war craft which structures a story of unseen (and often unacknowledged) conflicts, largely in the border provinces of Pakistan under the guise of targeting Al Qaeda. The filmmaker interviews compelling and loquacious subjects including a number of former drone pilots, suggesting unsettling links between that programme and modern video gaming (one of these pilots is disarmingly like one’s mental stereotype of the gamer), as well as others working around the industry. A particular highlight is a startlingly ingenuous take on drone warfare from a man who helped to create and market the technology. Understandably, perhaps, there’s little in the way of corrective voices from the agencies who most rely on drone warfare, so the film’s thesis tends to be a one-way street. Yet it’s terrifying to consider the implications of this impersonal method of warfare — voiced in the film most cogently by a former military adviser to Colin Powell — not just to unnamed Pakistani targets, but to all of us wherever we live, and that’s something the film puts across keenly.

Drone film poster CREDITS
Director Tonje Hessen Schei; Cinematographer Anna Myking; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Monday 1 June 2015.

Testament of Youth (2014)

Every film production is a labour of love for those who work on it, and this looks to have been a fairly big, sumptuously mounted one. I have no doubt, too, that Vera Brittain’s memoirs make for powerful pacifist literature. It’s just that in translating her words to the big screen, I can’t help but feel some of that power has been lost. I don’t want to go into too much detail, though, about a film I didn’t really like, much though there was a lot to like about it and which others will no doubt embrace more than I. The director is fond of unmoored handheld camera shots framing wispy faces against nature in a sort of impressionistic way, which is of a piece with the nostalgic feeling to it, complemented nicely by the very fetching costume design. Alicia Vikander, an excellent actor who’s been getting a lot of good roles right now (she has three films out), was wonderful as the English-born monarch in En kongelig affære (A Royal Affair) a few years ago, and here extends her range of English heroines with the central role, putting a lot of growly feistiness into it, despite her slightness of frame. Kit Harington as her love interest Roland is suitably dashing. However, it doesn’t always feel as though the scenes of war are sufficiently nasty — though suitably grimy, the men themselves come across rather with a sort of romanticised vacancy — to set up the boldly pacifist turn her thinking takes towards the end. In short, a nice film and a fairly unobjectionable one, but maybe that’s my problem with it.

Testament of Youth film posterCREDITS
Director James Kent; Writer Juliette Towhidi (based on the memoir by Vera Brittain); Cinematographer Rob Hardy; Starring Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 21 January 2015.