Mudbound (US, 2017)

Bound in pain

Mudbound is one of the best films of the year but you’ll be lucky (from a UK perspective) if you can see it in cinemas even though it was only released yesterday; it’s a ‘Netflix original’. I wish I could see it in the cinema if only for Rachel Morrison’s beautiful cinematography. I’m not just referring to the sunsets but also the mud-sodden fields where much of the action takes place. I’m not having a go at Netflix,  at least they supported a black, female director – Dee Rees – in making an uncompromising film about racial hatred in 1940s America.

With high quality television sets, high definition streaming and sound bars, watching films at home has never been better. I remember watching Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR 1972) on a black and white portable television, I still enjoyed it but… One thing we’re likely to never know, however, is how popular Mudbound is with audiences as Netflix doesn’t release figures. That’s commercially sensitive information allowing it to know what types of film to make so anyone with a Netflix subscription watch it! The film’s won festival awards and is being linked to the Oscars but ‘box office’ figures will forever be absent.

I struggled slightly at the start of the film to orientate myself as the film sprawls somewhat in setting up the backgrounds of the two families; I also struggled with the accents of the characters but I could have put on the subtitles. However, the early scenes are important and once the McAllans arrive in Mississippi the narrative grips. Part of my struggle may have been because a number of characters have their own voiceovers which made it uncertain who were the main protagonists. I’m indifferent to voiceovers usually, unless it’s film noir, as they seem to be a failure of cinematic narration; however in Mudbound they work superbly to offer a multiplicity of viewpoints.

All the performances are extraordinary from Carey Mulligan to Mary J. Blige, unrecognisable (she’s in the image above) without her make up. Rees’ direction is subtle: I particularly liked a shot on V.E. Day with Ronsel, a member of General Patton’s Black Panthers, with his German lover looking out of the window at the celebrations in the street. He’s in the background and, despite the joyous scene, it’s clear he’s unhappy because it means his relationship is now over. Rees is equally confident in the battle scenes conveying the visceral horror and fully setting up the relationship between two veterans when they return from war.

As a chunk of Southern Gothic melodrama, Mudbound delivers brilliantly and hopefully Netflix finds it worth while to finance more of Rees’ films.

 

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Force Majeur (Sweden-France-Norway-Denmark, 2014)

Happy families

I thoroughly ‘enjoyed’ Ruben Östlund’s Play and found this subsequent feature equally engrossing. Skewering the bourgeoisie is not exactly a difficult task and cinema has been at it since at least the Surrealists in the 1920s, but Östlund manages to revisit the territory in interesting ways. The bourgeois family are holidaying in the bourgeois winter destination par excellence: a skiing resort. Östlund separates scenes with shots of the overnight maintenance of the ski slopes which, particularly when accompanied by a demented accordion version of Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’, are surreal.

Östlund’s camera, as in Play, is detached from the events it portrays through the use of longish takes such as in the image above: a recurring banal activity but as the fractures in the family widen the subtle changes in behaviour speak loudly. After a traumatic event the family unravels as the patriarch’s shallowness is revealed. I’ll not reveal the dramatic moment as it’s intensely gripping.

Östlund (he also wrote the script) is not afraid of challenging the audience and the final scene, when the family are leaving the resort on a coach, is brilliantly done leaving a final image where the family are shown to be a microcosm of bourgeois life. Brilliant stuff.

The Beguiled (US, 2017)

My eyes were dim

Another low-medium budget US film (after me complaining about their decline) but in spite of the rave reviews, and Cannes recognition, this remake of the Clint Eastwood 1971 version, of Thomas Cullinan’s 1968 novel, did not hit my buttons. I’d be interested to see the earlier version again, directed by testosterone-fuelled Don Siegel, to compare with Sofia Coppola’s adaptation. I remember enjoying the original film but not why I did. Is it the feminine sensibility of the remake that disengaged me? (Hope not).

One problem I had was with the extremely low light levels, many of the interiors are (apparently) only candle lit; I kept nodding off (end of term exhaustion). The cast is great: Kidman and Dunst in particular. I like the way Colin Farrell appeared to be cast against type, at least for the first part of the film. However, I struggled to understand his motivation: was he flirting with the women ‘naturally’ or calculatedly? I couldn’t connect his ‘second part’ melt down (though it was understandable that he was angry) with the charmer of the first part. Was that the script or performance? Either way, Coppola is responsible.

The opening shot looked fake to me. It’s a Southern Gothic forest that appears to be out of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ but it looked stylised. It may have been (mostly or all) real but one of the problems of modern CGI is the plasticity of digital effects (though The Beguiled was shot on film that doesn’t preclude digital manipulation) have corrupted (in my eyes) the contract of film that asserts the pro filmic image is real. Of course special effects have been a part of cinema virtually since its inception, however CGI has lost its ‘wow’ factor through its ability to show anything. I rarely find any ‘visible’ special effect awesome. Most effects are ‘invisible’, such as eradicating a jet’s stream from the sky, but when a scene doesn’t look real it’s easy to think CGI is to blame and so from the first shot of the film I was (slightly) disengaged because I didn’t believe the image. That is, the image’s verisimilitude didn’t convince me. I apologise for the meandering paragraph but CGI has changed the way I watch films and I’m trying to understand how.

At the conclusion of the film, where Southern Gothic was writ largest, I did start to enjoy the movie. Kidman’s a fine actor and her shift between ladylike and malevolence was virtually imperceptible. It’s great to see her getting great roles again.

Hell or High Water (US, 2016)

Trapped by malicious circumstance

As American cinema, at last, sinks into artistic irrelevance it’s a delight to find the possibilities for interesting cinema haven’t completed died over the ‘pond’. I’m guilty of hyperbole here; for years snooty critics, only interested in art for what it says about their ‘cultural competence’ rather than genuine appreciation, have berated Hollywood in particular as being worthless. American cinema has produced, both in the indie and commercial sectors, many great films.

However contemporary Hollywood is, with its belief that franchises are the only game in town, neglecting the medium sized, not to mention small, movie so that 1970s ‘New Hollywood’ seems even longer than 50 years ago. Maybe even the most commercially oriented executives might be sweating over the box office under performances, in North America, of many of this year’s ‘tent pole’ releases; although the international market is baling them out at the moment.

Hell or High Water does hark back to ‘70s Hollywood and it probably just about broke even on its $12m estimated budget. The presence of Jeff Bridges, not entirely convincing in the role of the retiring sheriff, evokes that era’s The Last Picture Show (1970) and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974); particularly the latter with the outlaws on the road element. Director David Mackenzie’s insists that the setting, rundown Texas in the main, is an important character and, like its ‘70s forebears, politicises the narrative. Taylor Sheridan’s script ensures we understand that the financial crash of 2008 has damaged the American poor as much as the 1930s Depression.

Chris Pine shows himself to be a fine actor and Ben Foster, playing the older and wilder brother, is equally good. The film combines suspense, mystery (the brothers’ motivations) and humour as well as an excoriating critique of banking in America. I must catch up with Sheridan’s Sicario and David Mackenzie is one of my favourite contemporary directors.

Belle (UK, 2013)

Black belle

Although the inspiration for the film isn’t simply the above painting, where the bi-racial Belle is depicted with her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, the presence of a woman of colour in an aristocratic household in late 18th England is the core enigma of the film. The household is headed by Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) who, as Lord Chief Justice, made some judgements that helped in the abolition of slavery. Scriptwriter Misan Sagay melodramatically places one of the key decisions with Belle’s ‘coming out in society’ although, in fact, she was actually a young child at this time. This melodramatic narrative serves to highlight the racial discourse that is central to the film.

Director Amma Asante, whose A United Kingdom (Czech Republic-UK-US, 2016) also unearthed, superbly, hidden history about race, stated:

“You see a biracial girl, a woman of colour, who’s depicted slightly higher than her white counterpart. She’s staring directly out, with a very confident eye. This painting flipped tradition and everything the 18th century told us about portraiture. What I saw was an opportunity to tell a story that would combine art history and politics.” (link)

That’s not how I see it. To me they look level in the frame, though Belle’s turban is marginally higher; this equality in itself would have been a radical statement at the time. Belle also looks as if she is being pushed away and Elizabeth dominates two thirds of the frame. However if it is a push it’s certainly not aggressive given the smiling faces of both. Even though Belle is only filling a third of the frame she is the dynamic actor, moving on and in the direction of the city; St Paul’s can be seen in the background. Elizabeth is inhabiting a more domestic space that, even though she is outside, is enclosed and darker.

Belle’s finger pointing to her face is puzzling (there are theories in the article quoted above). The most obvious interpretation is she’s drawing attention to her colour; if this is the case it is doing it in an extraordinarily modern way as it is a hyperbolic gesture that serves only to emphasise the obvious. It’s almost ‘cheesy’.

Both women engage the viewer’s gaze with confidence; they are not there for the male gaze they are for themselves. It is an extraordinary painting; as far as I can tell, it’s not known who created the image.

The film is fascinating too and although it may lean a little too far toward crowd pleasing narrative resolutions that can be forgiven as it’s telling a fabulous tale. It’s a stellar cast, including Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton, James Norton, which is headed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw who is superb as Belle.

I am looking forward to Asante’s next film.

Ilo Ilo (Singapore-Taiwan-Japan-France, 2013)

Unhappy family

Might be the conjunction of the planets but there’s been a few interesting films on free-to-air UK TV recently. Ilo Ilo (the title, the Guardian’s reviewer says, is a “Mandarin phrase meaning “mum and dad not at home”) is a family melodrama focusing on the impact of the 2007-08 economic crisis. Coincidentally, as in my previous post The Olive Tree, economic issues form the context but the grandfather-grandchild is not so central in this Singaporean film. Angela Bayani plays Terry, the Filipina maid brought in to help with the badly-behaved 10 year-old, Jiale. Although wringing the child’s neck seems a reasonable reaction to his actions, it is clear that mum and dad’s problems have left him neglected. If there is one weakness in the film it’s the transition from antagonism to friendship in the relationship between Terry and Jiale is a little abrupt but everything else in writer-director Anthony Chen’s debut feature is convincing.

In one particularly effective scene a neighbour in the high-rise flats commits suicide from the building’s top. We experience this from Terry’s perspective; the shock she feels is palpable. Although we are not told why the person gave up his life it is likely the economic insecurity that led to his actions. Like in Falling Down (US, 1993), Jiale’s dad goes to work each day even though he doesn’t have a job. The American film was one of a number that reflected American anxiety at the rising economic power of East Asia; 20 years on it seems everyone is in decline (except China and India).

The film’s also emotionally engaging in terms of the plight of migrant workers. At best, they are treated as second class citizens -Terry’s passport is immediately confiscated by Jiale’s mother – and her desperation at being away from her baby is clear.

I noted in my post on The Olive Tree that melodrama is not an effective genre for instigating political action but is good for raising awareness. Ilo Ilo does this, for those of us in the west, about ordinary people’s lives in South East Asia. The insecure job market is endemic, as is the poor treatment of migrants. In the UK we are embarking on what will no doubt, if today’s disgusting (even by its standards) Daily Mail is allowed to set the tone, be a vicious election campaign where the right wing will shout down any compassion for others. Watching films from other cultures is one of the few ways we can learn to empathise with others as they are, of course, just like us.

The contempt for democracy, which requires dissent, is obvious in the headline but I wonder whether whoever chose the image of PM Teresa May realised how demonic she looks.

The Olive Tree (El olivo, Spain-Germany, 2016)

Past and future

The filmmaking team (and spouses) of director Icíar Bollaín and scriptwriter Paul Laverty (who wrote I, Daniel Blake amongst others of Ken Loach’s films) made the brilliant Even the Rain and if The Olive Tree isn’t quite that good it’s still a film to relish.

I moaned a few posts back at being bored of man-centred storied so having a young woman, Alma (Anna Castillo), was a good start, particularly one who was fighting patriarchal bullshit that appears to be particularly influential in Spain. The narrative centres around the relationship with her grandfather, who’s declining into dementia, and the olive tree which represents past values. If that suggests a reactionary film, which would be typical of the politics of melodrama, then that would be wrong because the film has the present to rail against. The 2007-08 financial crash, municipal corruption and patriarchal values are shown for their destructive qualities against which tradition family values, represented by the 2000 year-old olive tree, are clearly superior.

I felt slightly anxious throughout that the film would veer to much toward the feel-good. I’m not against feeling good but that, through catharsis, is the political project of mainstream cinema so we momentarily forget our ills. A political film should enrage the audience to action. As noted, melodrama is not ideal for this, because it focuses on individuals rather than people acting together, however it is an excellent vehicle for raising awareness if not stimulating change. That is especially true for a well-told tale that, with sympathetic performances, the The Olive Tree offers.