El despertar de las hormigas (The Awakening of the Ants, 2019)

As you’ll see from my recent posts about films available on Mubi, a recurring theme is new films by new filmmakers. This one comes from the Berlin film festival, and is the debut by a Costa Rican woman filmmaker, dealing with one woman’s domestic life. It was only recently up on Mubi, and may have gone by now, but every month there are others not unlike this one.


Like a lot of recent Latin American cinema I’ve seen (and I’m thinking of Los tiburones, or Hogar, or the works of Lucrecia Martel, Dominga Sotomayor or Lina Rodriguez), there’s a very quiet and watchful tone being struck in this film. It’s about Isabel (Daniela Valenciano), a mother of two daughters, whose life seems to be largely about keeping control of the kids, alongside cooking for her husband (Leynar Gomez). It’s the kind of dull, depressing life that makes one’s mind drift towards Jeanne Dielman, but there’s nothing quite so dramatic developing here, although the ants of the title (along with other household insects) have a habit of appearing in Isa’s waking nightmares, little hallucinatory breaks from her mundane daily reality. She’s in a state of anxiety because her husband wants another child (a boy, of course), but she really doesn’t want that, and so sets her mind to little ways of sabotaging this plan. It’s a film that expresses this disquiet in subtle ways as it goes on; for example, the husband could easily be a monster, but apart from being oblivious to the work Isa is doing, he’s largely a pretty decent guy. And so it’s a slow film in the way it develops, but focused always on Isa and the ways in which she feels trapped by domesticity.

The Awakening of the Ants film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Antonella Sudasassi; Cinematographer Andrés Campos; Starring Daniela Valenciano, Leynar Gomez; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 24 March 2020.

Corpo Celeste (aka Heavenly Body, 2011)

Another film you won’t currently find on Mubi, but this debut feature by a major modern filmmaker is just one of the types of strands Mubi regularly presents. In fact, it’s one of the places I’ve been most fortunate to catch up with the early films of important contemporary filmmakers. As just one example, right now (i.e as of 25 March 2020) you can find Neighbouring Sounds, the debut film by Kleber Mendonça Filho (of Aquarius and Bacurau fame).


I loved Rohrwacher’s latest film Happy as Lazzaro and seeing her first feature film reminds me that a lot of what I loved there is present in all her work. It doesn’t feel heavy-handed at all to me, but rather a very gentle coming of age narrative, about a young girl (Yle Vianello) who starts to really get a sense not so much of adulthood itself, as of the disappointments that this world she’s entering can present, specifically around religion. She has come to Italy, a devoutly Catholic country, after a period of having grown up in Switzerland, and finds the church there to be somewhat disappointing, and the classes she attends just a little bit lacking in serious intent. While Santa, one of the lay women who runs the classes, fusses over the very much middling priest (Salvatore Cantalupo), our heroine Marta sits there impassively watching and judging all the nonsense that is passed off as being part of faith. It’s true that some of the symbolic reaches the film goes for are pretty strong — the crucifix mounted to the roof of the priest’s car as he speeds around the mountain ridges feels like one such — but overall this film prefers to focus on the quiet and melancholy experienced by Marta as she navigates this world.

Corpo Celeste film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Rohrwacher; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Yle Vianello, Salvatore Cantalupo, Anita Caprioli; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Wednesday 15 January 2020.

La telenovela errante (The Wandering Soap Opera, 2017)

Amongst the restorations and retrospectives, Mubi also presents new or rediscovered films by contemporary directors, both brand new names I’ve never heard of before (like Lina Rodriguez) — and this despite my regular attendance at film festivals! — or old names who have new works that perhaps have slipped by other means of distribution (such as new films by Krzysztof Zanussi for example, or the later works of Straub/Huillet). One such is this Chilean film by expatriate filmmaker and prolific auteur Raúl Ruiz; it was filmed in 1990 but edited together after Ruiz’s death (in 2011) by his partner.


A typically goofy project from the prolific expatriate Chilean director, returning to his home country to make this 1990 project with students, only now edited and released by his former partner. It has an episodic structure with title cards and only a loose sense of connectivity between the episodes, but it has Ruiz’s style, or rather his restless reinventions, as the action is framed differently, whether through TV screens and reflections, or shot from behind indoor plants, and other ways of retaining viewer attention. There’s a constant sense of play around spectatorship that you might expect, and it comes across as a metatextual reconfiguration of telenovelas with lots of references to contemporary Chile, which naturally pass me by but raise a wry smile at times. It has an energy and humour to it that is very likeable, even as (like many Ruiz films) it contains some kind of enigmatic mystery at its heart.

The Wandering Soap Opera film posterCREDITS
Directors Raúl Ruiz and Valeria Sarmiento; Writers Ruiz and Pia Rey; Cinematographers Leo Kocking, Héctor Ríos and Rodrigo Avilés; Starring Luis Alarcón, Patricia Rivadeneira, Francisco Reyes; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 2 January 2020.

Criterion Sunday 301: An Angel at My Table (1990)

Janet Frame is one of those iconic New Zealanders (not least because of her bright corona of red hair) who probably isn’t much known outside the country — or wasn’t until this biopic by Jane Campion. It’s a remarkable work that tracks her life via a tripartite structure (taken from the three memoirs Frame wrote): we see her as a young schoolgirl, then as a teenager, and finally played by Kerry Fox as an uncertain adult venturing out into the world after a period of difficulty. By which I mean that she was sectioned into a mental hospital for eight years of her life, for absolutely no medically-sound reason as it later turned out (just that everyone thought she was a bit odd). Campion does her best to find a balance between the darker elements and a sense of poetic license and even joy, and ultimately the film is about Frame finding her place in the world and her poetic voice. It’s all gorgeously shot and mounted, set in rural Otago before Frame later moves to London and Spain. Fox does well to convey Frame’s withdrawn character in an engaging way, and this is one of Campion’s best films.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is the 10 minute The Making of An Angel at My Table (2002) documentary by one of the producers of the feature which gives some behind the scenes context for the making of the film, mostly told by Campion herself, as well as Campion on her festival and press tour, promoting the finished film.
  • There are six short deleted scenes which add a few more little details to the characterisations.
  • There’s a fine stills gallery with some production photos, including the actual Janet Frame with her three actors.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jane Campion; Writer Laura Jones (based on the autobiographies To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table and The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame); Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Kevin J. Wilson; Length 158 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 12 December 1999 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 17 March 2020).

Dumplin’ (2018)

A quick bonus post for the week of Netflix films for another recent Netflix original, and a very sweet and charming one at that. This kind of thing — the comedic coming-of-age — goes with the pastel-hued romcom (often with a seasonal theme) and the stand-up comedy special as one of Netflix’s staples, and they do it well. I have no doubt that future weeks will see me turn to other streaming services or sources of stay-at-home film-watching content for obvious reasons, and perhaps I’ll be back with Netflix again soon enough.


There are obviously limits to auteurism, and most mainstream cinema traditions are fairly effective at proving those limits; sure, Anne Fletcher is the director credited with helming one of my least favourite films that I’ve seen (2015’s Hot Pursuit, though I don’t daresay there are a million worse ones and I only watched that particular film because it’s by a woman director), but in most such cases, it’s the screenplay where one should be focused. In this case, the source material and its adaptation by Kristin Hahn is almost entirely on point — in no small way abetted by another fine and subtle writer on the soundtrack, Dolly Parton — and Dumplin’ thus exudes a genuine warmth. There are a few clichés of the genre, but all of them are in service to a message — about body positivity and personal growth — that avoids preachiness and shaming, and doesn’t allow its characters the cop-outs of success by the usual metrics of the genre (winning a prize, fitting in with the cool girls, getting the boy… well, to a certain extent, anyway). Millie, for example (my favourite character, played by Maddie Baillio), is never depicted as hating herself, or having a secret dark side behind her omnipresent smile, or as being in any way less than perfectly confident in who she was (albeit in need of a bit of coaching for a beauty pageant), and that was great. The ‘drag queens teaching the outsider girls to be more femme’ was a bit more stock, but overall I think the film creates enough of a positive feeling, and the actors put enough into it, that even that I think wasn’t too jarring.

Dumplin' film posterCREDITS
Director Anne Fletcher; Writer Kristin Hahn (based on the novel by Julie Murphy); Cinematographer Elliot Davis; Starring Danielle Macdonald, Jennifer Aniston, Odeya Rush, Maddie Baillio; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 11 December 2018.

American Psycho (2000)

If there’s one thing that Netflix is most commonly criticised for, it’s the relentless focus on the new. If you want old films generally you go to other places, like the Criterion Channel or TCM (if you’re in North America), or Mubi, or even Amazon Prime. Still, you can sometimes find some vintage classics on Netflix, and that’s the film I’m covering today, because yes the year 2000 is now a good 20 years’ away in time. I should mention, as an aside, I have not read nor at this point would I read the original novel on which this was based; it has its adherents, but I don’t think I need to welcome the voice of Mr Ellis into my life.


For Christmas Day, my wife and I watched this film, what I would now consider a modern classic (and almost a Christmas film itself), though I’m not sure I was quite so sold on it when I first saw it almost 20 years ago. If anything, I think age has only made the satire sharper and more resonant, though the core of the film remains the monologues of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), often critiquing popular music of the era, which he delivers in a completely straight way that only heightens their comic impact. For me the key thing the film does is blur the line between what’s actually happening and what’s in Bateman’s head, to the extent that it’s never clear where anything lies as the film progresses. It’s a film about the opulent allure of specifically American wealth creation, and a nasty dissection (as it were) of all the flaws inherent in corporate consumerism, about the way it turns society against itself, and leads to the murderous psychosis that’s at the film’s heart, and which it very clearly links to the functioning of American capitalism itself. Plus, it’s beautifully shot and acted. I wonder that Mary Harron never again had a chance to emulate its success, but this film at least stands as proof of her talent.

American Psycho film posterCREDITS
Director Mary Harron; Writers Harron and Guinevere Turner (based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis); Cinematographer Andrzej Sekula; Starring Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Samantha Mathis, Chloë Sevigny, Reese Witherspoon; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 9 September 2000 (and most recently on Netflix streaming at home, London, Wednesday 25 December 2019).

Julie & Julia (2009)

As long as we’re watching films on Netflix, there is a rich seam of upbeat, rosy-tinted content, whether banal seasonal movies, romcoms, stand-up specials or the singular work of American master Nora Ephron, whose last film was this curious tale of two women divided by time but united by a love of very fatty food.


I am decidedly not someone who is ever going to eat any of the food seen on-screen in this film; of all the major world cuisines, I sometimes feel as if classical French cooking is about the least likely to get in my belly (at this point in my life, now that I’m vegan). However, like growing up atheist in a nominally Christian country, you can’t help but avoid its influence over your everyday life, and what’s more everyday than eating? Julia Child is, of course, one of the key figures in popularising French cooking in the English-speaking world (well, in America; you could make a case that Elizabeth David was more influential in the UK), but it’s her presence on TV that probably holds the most appeal to an actor as expressively imitative as Meryl Streep. Truly her scenes — ably supported by an always-watchable Stanley Tucci — are the backbone of this film, with all due respect to Amy Adams and Chris Messina, who are also likeable but aren’t Meryl and Stanley. Of course, true life stories aside, Nora Ephron is the key creative woman in this enterprise, and her filmmaking can be divisive, but I have always broadly liked her films, and this one is no exception. It’s a soufflé, a warmly-coloured confection with glowing kitchens to match any in a Nancy Meyers movie, but it’s also a film with a generous warmth towards its subjects and which is every bit as incisive about upper-middle-class New York marriages as anything else you can find on Netflix right now, and probably more easily rewatchable too.

Julie & Julia film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nora Ephron (based on the memoir by Julie Powell, and the autobiography My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme); Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt; Starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 10 December 2019.

Fast Color (2018)

Catching up on my films-on-Netflix theme, we come to this striking outing from Julia Hart, a sort of supernatural superhero film albeit one very much grounded in a recognisable world.


This is a film that builds slowly, but it has a sense of atmosphere and mystery that I found beguiling and which really drew me into this story, reminiscent somewhat of NK Jemisin or Octavia Butler in putting across this recognisable future world of hardship and environmental breakdown without belabouring the dystopian qualities in a simple way or building societal collapse into some art-designed fascist nightmare. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Ruth, a confused young woman just trying to piece things together as she travels across these wide, barren landscapes, and the film follows her and reveals things to us as she discovers them. It’s clearly not had a huge budget (like a number of other recent future dystopia films) but it uses its effects in a sparing and expressionist manner, and draws out the drama happening amongst primarily three characters.

Fast Color film posterCREDITS
Director Julia Hart; Writers Hart and Jordan Horowitz; Cinematographer Michael Fimognari; Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Saniyya Sidney, Lorraine Toussaint, Christopher Denham, David Strathairn; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 13 December 2019.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019)

Hello and belated greetings to a new week. I got back from holiday and had my first day at work yesterday (Monday) so I failed to put a post up. Now I’m working from home, and may be for a while. This week’s theme is ‘films available on Netflix’ (and probably all directed by women). Maybe in future weeks I will cover other online streaming services. “But why now?” I hear you ask. “Why would you do a themed week about films available to watch online?” Well, I shall leave that for you to guess. I’m going to start with one of the most impressive little indie films from the last year, with a resonant title.


This isn’t a particularly showy film, though it does some things that other films make a big deal about. For a start, it’s shot like a Dardenne brothers film, in these long sinuous handheld shots, moving with people almost continuously, with very few perceptible cuts. However, the subject matter isn’t particularly aggrandising, as instead it deals with the aftermath of domestic violence, about one (professional, middle-class) woman, Aila (played by one of the directors, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), helping out Rosie (Violet Nelson), a poorer, pregnant woman she finds standing barefoot in the rain with a bruised face. Both are of First Nations origins, although that doesn’t necessarily help them get along — class seems to be the more evident dividing line, and Rosie finds it difficult to feel comfortable in the situation. The film is about trying to find some truth in these circumstances, of how difficult it is for those who are abused to accept help, and how difficult it is for those who want to give it, to accept that it may not always be wanted. The film journeys into a lot of difficult emotional terrain, and I think it’s a credit to the film that nothing is resolved easily. However, there’s a grace to it, and a sustaining power of just witnessing peoples’ lives and perhaps learning what it is to be helpful in such circumstances.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn; Cinematographer Norm Li; Starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Violet Nelson; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Sunday 1 December 2019.

Criterion Sunday 296: Le notti bianche (aka White Nights, 1957)

Is this how people used to meet, just chatting up beautiful weeping girls standing on canal bridges? Perhaps it’s a lost art, though Marcello Mastroianni, for all his film star looks, does have to spend the first third of the film apologising for his forward approach. Once it gets going, it’s a three-way story of a woman torn between two men, one (Jean Marais) who has left her and promised to return, and another (Mastroianni) who is right there, hungry for attention and for love. It’s all shot with great monochrome beauty on what looks like sound stage sets, though Visconti isn’t shy of showing the poverty coexisting with his beautiful leads, as they sneak away for trysts under bridges being used as shelters by homeless people. There’s a sense here about the disjunction between the romantic ideals so gorgeously expressed in some of the cinematography and the big, melodramatic emotions played out at times between the two, and the bitter truth of reality, and of how people live. There’s a lot to admire in this film, of course, but probably best of all is Mastroianni’s brief fit of dancing to a Bill Haley song in a gaudy young person’s nightclub bar. That alone would make the film worthwhile, but there’s a lot else going on besides.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luchino Visconti; Writers Suso Cecchi d’Amico and Visconti; Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno; Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Maria Schell, Jean Marais; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 February 2020.