Greta (Ireland-US, 2018)

Not Greta Thunberg

I really enjoyed this classy piece of schlock. Classy not only because of the presence of Isabelle Huppert, but also Neil Jordan’s direction. In addition, the sound design by Stefan Henrix is outstanding. Added to these, Seamus McGarvey’s sumptuous cinematography ensures we know that this film oozes class whilst delving into Grand Guignol narrative.

One Guardian reviewer complained the film wasn’t about anything however the intergenerational clash seemed to me to chime perfectly with the current one being played out regarding the lack of action on climate change. In the UK we have been regaled by middle aged news anchors patronising youngsters as they take part in Extinction Rebellion protests. There couldn’t be a better illustration of the necessity that young people take action to sort out the response to climate change because the old fellows have failed.

Huppert plays a lonely woman and Chloë Grace Moretz the youngster who mistakenly befriends her. We know it’s a mistake when the music goes all ‘sinister’ when Huppert’s Greta is seen googling the young woman. Such obviousness places the film in the thriller mode that was popular in the 1990s; Single White Female (1992) sprang to mind. There is a danger when treading well-trodden ground that little surprises but Jordan, and co-scriptwriter Ray Wright, insert enough difference to ensure this is a genre piece that isn’t too ‘samey’.

Excellent as Moretz is, and Maika Monroe as her friend is great too, the film belongs to Huppert whose performance is such that when the psycho-woman appears there is no sense that this isn’t also the sweet older lady we met at the start of the film. I particularly liked the denouement, which I won’t spoil, that not only wrong-footed me but ensured, ideologically, the film was progressive.

Despite all this it was probably the sound design that impressed me the most. Presumably because of technological developments, sound in film is (well it seems to me) becoming more detailed. mother! was a case in point but as that was an expressionist inferno the foregrounding of sound was entirely appropriate. Sound isn’t used in the same way in Greta but the interplay between diegetic (in the narrative world) and non-diegetic music is exceptionally effective. Writing about sound in film is much harder than images because there’s usually more than one layer in the mix at any one time and, of course, it can’t be pictured in visual memory.

It’s Jordan’s first film for seven years and he’s too classy a filmmaker for such a hiatus. Greta isn’t going to rank amongst his highest achievements but it is well worth seeing.

 

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Detroit (US, 2017)

detroit-11

Enduring racism

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (like Detroit scripted by Mark Boal) played loose with the truth when stating CIA’s torture was instrumental with bringing Osama Bin Laden to… well, it wasn’t exactly justice. She may well be doing the same with Detroit, as unpicking contested truth 50 years after the event is always going to be contentious, however here it is entirely justified because of the essential truth of a racist justice system.

In many ways it is an extraordinary film as the first 20 minutes or so is a mosaic of events and is as anti-Hollywood narrative as Hollywood gets; though producer Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures does strive to go beyond the mainstream. As Bigelow said, in a Sight & Sound (Aug. 2017) interview, her intention was to move from the macro, the riot, to the micro, the notorious events in the Algiers Motel. This is accentuated by the use of relatively little known actors (to me at any rate), it wasn’t until John Boyega’s appearance that I had a face to latch on to. Algee Smith plays would-be Motown singer, Larry, who becomes as close to a protagonist the film has; he is superb (as is Boyega).

Once the scene is set we are immersed in Bigelow’s trademark intense direction as racist cop, played with vital viciousness by Will Poulter, ‘interrogates’ the unfortunates in the motel. This viewer at least was mentally pleading for a ‘good guy’ to step in and stop the violence but reality isn’t Hollywood. I don’t know whether police violence against African Americans is on the rise, or whether social media is making it more visible, but the problem dramatised in the film has not gone away; see also The Hate U Give, which also featured Smith.

The Sight & Sound reviewer argues the final part of the film, the trial, is deal with in a perfunctory fashion. Court scenes are never my favourite and by eliding most of the discussion we get just enough to see that justice (mostly) wasn’t done and that is sufficient.

The relatively cheaply made ($35m) film bombed in North America. Was this due to the non-Hollywood opening or a reluctance to engage with depressing topic? Whatever the reason the film is an essential statement about racist America both in the 1960s and now.

Y tu mamá también Study Guide (Mexico, 2001)


I’ve just published a study guide to Y tu mamá también. Here’s the introduction:

Alfonso Cuarón is amongst the most feted of international filmmakers as he is one of the few that bestrides both arthouse and commercial cinema. Although his last film Roma (Mexico-US, 2018) suffered from limited distribution in cinemas as it was funded by Netflix, it was regarded as one of the best films of the year; Sight & Sound (January/February, 2019) had it top of its critics’ poll and it won Best Foreign Language and Best Director Oscars (Cuarón also won for his cinematography). Gravity (UK-US, 2013), the film that preceded Roma, grossed over $700m worldwide in cinemas and won seven Oscars.  He’s also directed one of the Harry Potter franchise (The Prisoner of Azkaban, UK-US, 2004).

Cuarón is one of the three Mexican directors (Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu are the others) who Deborah Shaw (2013) used to illustrate transnational cinema, arguably the most obvious trend in filmmaking to have come to notice in the 21stcentury. The fact that the three are Mexican exemplifies this trend as they have come from a relative backwater for filmmaking. Mexico, though, had a thriving industry from the 1930s to the 1950s and Latin America, as a whole, had a significant impact on both the theory and practice of filmmaking during the 1960s. Cutting edge cinema at this time became highly politicised in its opposition to imperialism, that of America in particular, and the various military dictatorship that prevailed on the continent. Although Mexico was a democracy, it suffered one party rule for over 70 years.

Despite this, Cuarón has suggested that he is not particularly interested in using film as a medium for a political statement:

“It’s the mantra of the old guard. If you don’t have a naked marxist (sic) ideology, then you’re a reactionary. If you have a strong story and production values, then you’re a Hollywood wannabe. And if you enjoy any success abroad, you’re a sell-out. Thankfully, a lot of the new generation is tossing off that old prejudice. They realise that you can be 100% Mexican and still be universal.” (quoted in Brooks 2002)

At face value this seems to be the statement of an establishment filmmaker who is happy to take Hollywood’s coin to enrich both himself and the production values of his films. After his debut Sólo con tu pareja (Love in the Time of Hysteria, Mexico, 1991) Cuarón went to Hollywood and made two literary adaptations, The Little Princess (1995) and Great Expectations (1998). As Paul Julien Smith stated (when writing about Y tu mamá también):

Cuarón is willing to risk being branded as superficial because his film is entertaining, treacherous because it draws on US culture, and reactionary because it deals with bourgeois characters. (2002: 16c)

However Cuarón is anything but ‘superficial’ and although he is a ‘commercial’ filmmaker he is clearly interested in more than ‘mere entertainment’. He has a keen eye for inequalities in the world and he is on the side of the oppressed but he is also a pragmatist that established himself in Hollywood as a ‘player’ in the industry and so is also able to make personal films.

Cuarón is clearly conscious of his Mexican heritage and both Y tu mamá también and Roma are about his home nation, particularly its colonial heritage. Even after decolonisation countries tend to replicate the racial hierarchy that existed when they were under foreign rule. This usually means that lighter-skinned people are more privileged, reproducing the dominant European hegemony. So in Mexico:

The demographics show the Criollo – Creole, lighter skinned, European, phenotype continues to rule while the indigenous Indian continues to struggle against poverty and oppression. These small groups of white Europeans – the remaining Spanish colonists along with French Settlers from the 1800’s represent 9% of the population. The Mestizos, (people of mixed indigenous and European heritage) make up the largest ethnicity at roughly 60%. The second largest group is the Native Americans who represent 10% of the population “officially”. However, unofficially many believe the figure to be closer to 30%.  [However] most Mestizos are in fact assimilated Native Americans, inflating the Mestizo population estimate from 60% to as high as 80%. (Kemet 2006)

The continuing racial discrimination is, in part, a result of the institutional structures left behind by the colonists who favoured lighter-skinned people like themselves. This is how the racism of the colonists continues even after independence. We shall consider this in chapter three, the key point here is that Cuarón, although a commercial filmmaker, is a humanist who believes it is important that the underclass be represented as a challenge to racism.

Roma is a companion piece to Y tu mamá también not simply because they are both Mexican films, they both represent this underclass. Whilst this is the key theme of Roma, which is about the life of his nanny Liboria Rodríguez, in Y tu mamá también the ‘lives of others’ – the indigenous population  – appears to be tangential to the teen road movie narrative. However, the use of the omniscient voiceover serves to highlight the indigenous experience even when we are watching the frolics of the teenage boys. While Cuarón entertains us he also uncovers the lives of those who are rarely privileged with being shown in mainstream cinema. It is a multi-layered film that, at the top level, is a tragi-comedy and underneath a critique of Mexico at the turn of the century. It is a film that can be both enjoyed and thought about in equal measure.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (UK-Malawi, 2019)

Uncertain feeling

‘True life’ stories are invariably uplifting and the title gives away the film’s denouement. While that’s not a reason to avoid a film I was feeling a little uneasy about the prospect of being made to feel good about a film set in rural Africa. Was the purpose of the film to salve my western guilt about those less privileged than I?

There was no need to worry because director-star and scriptwriter Chiwetel Ejiofor has ensured that there’s enough realpolitik about, in this case, rural Malawi that the uplifting ending can’t disguise the privation suffered by the people. The film is based on the titular hero’s book and we duly get the end credits filling in what happened to William Kamkwamba next. But the journey there is truly tough as Ejiofor ensures we understand the problems of education, politics, climate change and capitalism that beset the village community. Most striking of all is the need for free education for all children.

Ejiofor plays William’s dad I wondered whether his charisma was a little too powerful for his character, the melodramatically named (and presumably actually named too), Trywell. Obviously his star wattage was essential to getting the movie made and he, creditably, even learned to speak the local language, Chichewa, though much of the film is also in English. However, he is such a fine actor, and patriarchy is so strong in the African community, that ultimately the casting worked because it made clear how hard it was for William to challenge his dad.

Ejiofor defended the decision to distribute via Netflix (see here) but his hope that it would also be seen in cinemas appears to have been dashed (apart from some festival screenings). Obviously much is lost on television when the cinematography, courtesy of Dick Pope, is widescreen. Presumably the BBC’s involvement means it won’t be too long before it appears on terrestrial television.

As Extinction Rebellion activists make their presence felt, it’s important to see the impact climate change is having on communities who live on the verge of starvation. It might give some perspective to the whingers who have been complaining about the prospect of having to change their lives or face annihilation. It seems some believe that climate catastrophe will only affect poor countries (I spoke to an American who was relaxed about the idea that Bangladesh will disappear), not understanding that there is only one ecosystem on planet Earth.

Soni (India, 2018)

Strength in sisterhood

This low-budget, low key film about female police officers in Delhi lingers in the mind. Written, directed and edited by Chandigarh-born, and American educated, Ivan Ayr the film has an observational documentary quality that downplays potential drama; in one scene, the protagonists listen to corrupt cops extracting bribes. It is shot from their distant perspective and this serves to drain the drama but at the same time maintains a realist viewpoint. By subverting genre expectation, we expect the good cops to sort out the bad ones, the film signifies its realism. This is further reinforced by the use of sequence shots throughout; all the scenes are shot in one take.

Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) is a cop with a temper; she’s used as bait on the streets of Delhi to trap men who sexually abuse women. Her superior, Kolpana (Saloni Batra), tries to rein her in whilst protecting her from her the police hierarchy. Key to the film is the developing relationship between the women which is more important than the cop narrative. Both the actors are newcomers (it’s Ohlyan’s first film and Batra’s first feature) and they stand up very well to the strains of the long takes. Vikas Shukla is superb as Soni’s ex-boyfriend who’s trying to wheedle his way back into her affections.

David Bolen’s cinematography is excellent capturing the urban night-time wasteland of the streets that serves as Soni’s workplace.

I was surprised the film was authored by a male as he seems to me to capture a female point-of-view with great authenticity. He researched the police procedure thoroughly but also portrays the position of women, even putatively powerful ones as police, in patriarchal India. Radio news reports punctuate the soundtrack about having the apartheid of women-only public transport to protect them against men. At the film’s conclusion it’s clear that the film argues that the nepotism of Indian society has to change in order for there to be a fundamental improvement in the lot of women.

Ayr takes on not just the would-be rapists and the boys who know their influential parents will protect them should they get into trouble. Kolpana’s family gently hint that she’s not getting any younger (she’s 30) and so should be having children. The insistence on motherhood must, for some, become a stultifying bind and Batra subtly portrays her character’s frustration whilst trying to avoid confrontation.

The film was celebrated at some film festivals last year but not distributed in cinemas in the UK. It’s ‘washed up’ on Netflix.

Faces Places (Visages villages, France, 2017)

Still worth watching

Agnès Varda’s last feature film is a true joy. Crowd funded to allow her and street artist, and co-director, JR, to travel in his photo booth to shoot locals and briefly turn them into icons on their walls. There’s a wonderful whimsy, not withstanding the horrible animation of the credit sequence, to the project that conceals the directors’ desire to celebrate the under-represented. These aren’t ethnic minorities, I spotted only two black people in the film, but the ordinary person who populate the parts of France they visited. Thus miners and dockworkers of the working class are shown as well as women.

It’s obviously JR’s schtick to stick up giant images on buildings. They are only paper so don’t last long; like our lives. The black and white images are incredibly striking; moving the last woman living in old miner’s houses to understandable tears. Varda tells her it’s supposed to make her happy; the director’s humanism shines throughout. One of the few overtly political moments was the contrast between goat farms: one burns off their horns to increase production the other doesn’t.

The unlikely friendship between the artists, 60 years apart in age, is one of the joys of the film which is infused with humour. Their relative size, he seems to be twice as tall as she, is one running joke. In one scene an optician’s letter chart is mimicked by people on steps holding letters. Varda says they need to wobble to represent what she sees; she was suffering from an eye disease. It’s both funny and sad showing how Varda came to terms with her infirmity.

So much of television is full of reality TV where characters get to respond to whatever ‘after’ the narrative has provided them with. In Faces Places, though, the ‘after’ is genuinely awe-inspiring: seeing their images writ large and there is plenty of satisfaction in hearing the ‘ordinary people’s’ responses. At a factory, groups of shift workers are placed together to form a community that is, in reality, never there at the same time.

Varda’s film career started with the French new wave and the only sour note in the film is fellow pioneer Jean-Luc Godard’s curmudgeonly non-appearance at the end. Sadness also infuses watching the film now as Varda only died two weeks ago; she comments upon impending death in the film. However, the experience of the film is life affirming because she continued to work and continued to share her humanist perspective with us all. She will be missed.

Mandy (UK, 1952)

Wall of silence

Mandy was Alexander Mackendrick only non-comedy Ealing film and by my reckoning it is one of the great films of British cinema. A highly intense melodrama, the film focuses on a congenitally deaf girl, played brilliantly by Mandy Miller, whose middle class parents fight over how best to care for her. Terence Morgan’s dad, Harry, is a typical male who wishes to hide from difficult choices whilst Phyllis Calvert’s mum, Christine, refuses to give up on their daughter. Jack Hawkins plays his usual stiff upper lip hero, a teacher who cares deeply for his charges.

The script, by Nigel Balchin and Jack Whittingham (based on Hilda Lewis’ novel The Day is Ours), parallels Mandy’s disability with the failure of communication between the adults, including the repressed Harry’s parents. If my description of Hawkins above sounds disparaging, I don’t mean it to be as when he agonisingly starts to fall for Christine his pain is apparent. He has to fight Ackland, a trustee who cares more about appearances than the children, who plots his downfall. This man’s hypocrisy is subtly portrayed through his secretary with whom he’s clearly having an ‘affair’. (Funnily enough the actor playing the role, Edward Chapman, reminds me of Brexiteer Tory MP and entirely unself-aware idiot, Mark Francois).

It’s designed to be a tear-jerker and Mackendrick’s direction intensifies this further; even the act of a child slipping their hand into an adult’s becomes laden with emotion. He uses expressionist devices sparingly but with devastating effect. As Mandy peers out of her backyard, a (almost) choker shot (cutting her off at the neck) emphasises her pained loneliness. Shadows veil characters as repressed emotions threaten to break out. A close-up of the back of Mandy’s head signifies her deafness. At one point the sound disappears to mimic Mandy’s experience and the silence is devastating.

There’s a educational element in the film that never feels contrived: a new teacher struggles to deal with the children and the etiquette of ensuring deaf people can see a speaker’s mouth is seamlessly integrated into the narrative. Charles Barr, in Ealing Studios, suggests the film is about childhood in general in the post-war era and certainly the old fashioned characters, Harry’s parent and the wing-collared trustee, are shown to be in the wrong. Presumably this was the time that ‘children should be seen not heard’ was at last being challenged as compulsory education to 15 extended childhood.

The scene when Harry hits Christine for her stubbornness reminds us that domestic violence was (almost) acceptable. A lawyer even suggests that although women often deserve it the courts frown upon it. That Christine later accepts she deserved hitting is doubly chilling and is not something that the film vindicates.

Mackendrick directed only a few films and this, and Sweet Smell of Success, deserve the appellation ‘great’.