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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LFF 2016 Day Nine

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. [***½]


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: 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 and Dmitri Vasilyev | Writers Sergei Eisenstein and Pyotr Pavlenko | Cinematographer Eduard Tisse | Starring Nikolai Cherkasov, Nikolai Okhlopkov, 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.


© Flimmer Film

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Tonje Hessen Schei | Cinematographer Anna Myking | Length 79 minutes || Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Monday 1 June 2015

Testament of Youth (2014)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 21 January 2015


© Lionsgate

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.


CREDITS || Director James Kent | Writer Juliette Towhidi (based on the memoir by Vera Brittain) | Cinematographer Rob Hardy | Starring Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington | Length 129 minutes

Criterion Sunday 1: La Grande illusion (Grand Illusion, 1937)

There’s something almost a little unfashionable, it seems to me, about filmmaking in the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps because fashions and lifestyles in the lead-up to world war were just a little more buttoned-down and less flamboyant, and stories had to keep pace with dolorous political events. But this also means it was a time when stories of great humanity and soul were being made, not least by French filmmaker Jean Renoir, whose great masterpieces of this era still sit solidly near the top of ‘best ever’ film canons. La Grande illusion is Renoir at the top of his form, crafting a beautifully-shot story of class antagonism set at a German prisoner of war camp during World War I. It depicts a changing world, where the aristocrats in charge (Pierre Fresnay’s de Boeldieu, and Erich von Stroheim’s von Rauffenstein) find that the extreme events of war have united them with people they’d not usually fraternise with (Jean Gabin’s mechanic Maréchal and Marcel Dalio’s Jewish nouveau riche Rosenthal, among others). It’s clear that each has different ideas of the value of war and about how it should be conducted, and ultimately the film sides with the lower-class characters, implying that aristocratic values are increasingly irrelevant and doomed to disappear. (Would that this had been proven true in the real world, where Renoir’s warnings about war’s futility were hardly taken on-board, and where our current ruling classes hardly seem to have moved on in some respects.) It’s all beautifully filmed in shimmering monochrome, and in the end somehow uplifting, despite the setting.

Criterion Extras: As with these early Criterion DVD releases, there are some text-based extras, although the Press Book essays are fairly informative. There’s a brief demonstration of the film’s restoration, and indeed the print is sparkling and gorgeously-toned. An audio excerpt of the film winning at the 1938 New York Film Critics Awards has the voices of Renoir and von Stroheim, while there’s a trailer that presents not the film but Renoir talking about the film and his experiences making it (looking back from the late-1950s). Finally, Peter Cowie’s commentary is attentive to the film, giving some background and discussing some of the issues that Renoir raises.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir | Writers Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak | Cinematographer Christian Matras | Starring Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Marcel Dalio, Dita Parlo, Erich von Stroheim | Length 114 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 October 2014

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 9 June 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Warner Bros. Pictures

Tom Cruise has made a bit of a career in recent times at the thoughtful big-budget science-fiction genre. Perhaps he wanted to be in Inception and is trying to make up for it? In any case, while he’s very much front and centre in Edge of Tomorrow (or “Live Die Repeat” as the trailers and the, er, hashtag prefer to call it), the real standout hero is Emily Blunt as Sgt Rita Vrataski. She holds the key to unlocking the mystery of Cruise’s Major Bill Cage and his ever-recurring present (think Groundhog Day but with less comedy and more guns and violence), and she also proves herself the emotional centre of the piece. The film may not advance the genre, but it fills its generic shoes with uncommon concision and, much like the first Bourne film by the same director, makes for reassuring pleasures. Major Cage starts as a battle-shy media relations man in the Army at a time when the world is battling a shape-shifting seemingly invincible monster and has a great (and humorous) scene-setting tête-à-tête with Brendan Gleeson’s General in charge of all the world’s forces. If the media collage opening, with its glimpses of current-day political leaders intercut with Cruise, Gleeson and others in Starship Troopers newsbite form, seems to stretch credulity, it also hints that the film takes place in an alternate universe – or should that be “multiverse”, given the repetition at its heart. Cage is soon busted down to Private, and it’s here that the interplay between Cruise and Blunt takes over, to excellent effect. From thereon in it’s all fairly straightforward, with a few subtle shifts of setting that serve to keep the audience engaged, and a redemptive finale that doesn’t overstay its welcome.


CREDITS || Director Doug Liman | Writers Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth (based on the novel Oru Yu Nido Izu Kiru by Hiroshi Sakurazaka) | Cinematographer Dion Beebe | Starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Noah Taylor | Length 113 minutes

Det Hemmelighedsfulde X (Sealed Orders aka The Mysterious X, 1914)

This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.


FILM REVIEW: Movie Lottery 6 || Director/Writer Benjamin Christensen | Cinematographer Emil Dinesen | Starring Benjamin Christensen, Karen Sandberg | Length 85 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Thursday 13 June 2013 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Dansk Biografkompagni

It’s probably quite difficult to properly appreciate a film that is almost 100 years old (or it may be exactly 100 years old, as some sources list it as produced in 1913; however, I am taking the date from the Danish Film Institute DVD I own, as they seem like they’d be a trustworthy source on matters of Danish cinema). There are sequences here that seem deeply clichéd with such long hindsight, but must have been the height of cinematic sophistication at the time. Yet whatever its flaws, this is a wonderfully crafted piece of filmmaking.

Continue reading “Det Hemmelighedsfulde X (Sealed Orders aka The Mysterious X, 1914)”