The Little Match Girl (La vendedora de fósforos, Argentina, 2017)

Casting light?

This is the first film I’ve seen by writer-director Alejo Moguillansky, an Argentinean independent, whose trademark, according to Hollywood Reporter is:

perhaps the playfulness with which he works up personal, social and political concerns into pleasurably offbeat and always distinctive items that balance subtle characterization, strong storylines and plenty of sociopolitical reflection.

As is my wont I watched the film cold (I had no idea what it was about) and was certainly confused by the opening that seemed to be a documentary about the staging of Helmut Lachenmann’s opera Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern based on Hans Christian Anderson’s story. However, the voiceover by María Villar states she’s playing Marie so there’s an immediate disconnect between the form of documentary and the soundtrack. Lachenmann plays himself, as does pianist and octogenarian Margarita Fernández.

The opera’s director Walter (played by actor Walter Jakob) is clueless on how to stage the avant garde masterwork. He shares a daughter with Marie, who is taking lessons from Fernández but is forced to take the youngster along who’s entertained watching Robert Bresson’s 1966 film, Au Hasard Baltahazar; I guess it’s the donkey that keeps the girl gripped.

‘Playful’ is the watchword; Lachenmann, who admits Ennio Morricone is his favourite composer, is clearly a ‘good sport’ as the piss is taken out of his music throughout. Of course the problem with playful, unless the film is a comedy, is that it can get in the way of actually saying something. The dread hand of postmodernism can reduce a text to facetiousness and although I think The Little Match Girl manages to avoid this (the committed performances gift the it some heft) I can’t help feeling there’s a better film struggling to get out. Lachenmann’s anti-capitalist opera, being played in a state opera house during a strike, deserves more than being an ironic backdrop to the bourgeois shenanigans of the couple; a running joke is that Walter keeps ringing Marie for suggestions of how to stage the opera.

The film, however, is entertaining, the music (whether Beethoven, Schubert, Morricone or Lachenmann) is great so it is worth seeing. MUBI.

Ghost in the Shell (Japan-UK, 1995) and (US-India-China-Japan-Hong Kong-UK-New Zealand-Canada-Australia, 2017)

What am I?

It was great to be able to see the original on the big screen. Apart from the ability to see the awesome detail of the cityscape more clearly, it was Kawai Kenji’s score that had significantly more impact when compared to TV viewing. As I understand it, Ghost in the Shell was a prestige (expensive) production that attempted to rekindle the west’s (relative) enthusiasm for anime that had flared with Akira (Japan, 1988); hence Manga Entertainment’s UK involvement in the production (it’s now owned by Lionsgate). Whilst Studio Ghibli’s productions continued to have a fanbase in the west, there was a gap in the market for a more action orientated film (presumably for fanboys). Whilst anime remains a minority enthusiasm this side of the globe, anyone who saw The Matrix (US, 1999) was seeing the fruits of Ghost’s impact on the Wachowski brothers.

Ghost in the Shell continues to be influential in 2017 not only because of its visuals but in its portrayal of a society where the division between humans and technology is becoming extremely blurred. It wouldn’t have been surprising if this aspect of the film had dated because of the rapid pace of technological development over the last 20 years. However, if anything, it’s even more telling now because although we are not yet able, as humans, to exist online, many people don’t feel they are whole unless they are on the network. Young people, in particular, are wedded to mobile social media. The division between AI and humans, a topic that is ever more relevant as the Internet of Things invades our homes, is central to the film’s concerns.

I can’t, however, say I entirely understand the film; and its brilliant sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Japan, 2004) is even more opaque. Philosophy is difficult but it isn’t so much the ideas Ghost that perplex, rather what is going on for some of the time. Whilst the complexity may be wilful it can also be read as being about an increasingly incomprehensible world where actual news may be ‘fake news’; for example the fact that Britain and America are complicit in atrocities in Yemen is barely reported. In the UK we voted to leave the EU for reasons not based on truth (and there are many arguments why the EU is not fit for purpose) but on lies. However, Brian Ruh’s detailed plot summary in Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii confirms that the narrative is entirely coherent.

Although there is plenty of narrative drive in the film, it is a three-minute montage of cityscape that is most mesmerising. Colin Marshall offers some interesting analysis of this sequence (here); he explains that the emphasis on the space of the city is linked to cyberspace and shows how the boundaries between the real world and virtual reality is blurring; I’ve yet to look as his other videos. What Marshall doesn’t mention is Kusanagi is present in some of the montage, on her own , in parts of the montage giving us, I think, a sense of her loneliness.

You can see what I am

The first buzz I heard about the American remake was that the film offered another example of Hollywood ‘whitewashing’: Caucasian actors taking the role of minority ethnic characters; as for example in Doctor Strange (US, 2016) and Aloha (US, 2015). In this case it was the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Kusanagi. The charge is potent, the white dominance of executive positions in the film industry guarantees a monocular view of what audiences want: BAME, not to mention female characters, won’t appeal to a wide audience’ goes the ‘logic’ despite the evidence to the contrary – see Hidden Figures and Moonlight. See also: ‘Screenplay analysis shows that even in films with strong female leads, the number of lines by men far outweighs those by women’. However, the charge is weak in this case. Japanese anime conventionally doesn’t necessarily draw its characters as Japanese; the one obvious Japanese character in the original, Arimaki, is play by Kitano Takeshi in remake. There’s also a plot point that emphasises Kusanagi’s ethnicity.

Although I’d liked the trailer I was doubtful whether Ghost in the Shell would benefit from the Hollywood treatment and so it proved. Ironically, given the original’s purpose was to appeal to western audiences, the necessity to appeal to a very wide audience to justify the $100m+ budget drains the narrative of its fascination. The philosophy is barely present and the ending is ridiculous. The producers are looking to produce an ‘origin story’ to make the Major, as she is known in the film, as a new superhero. Fortunately poor box office returns suggest this won’t happen.

As noted above, Hollywood has already remade the original in The Matrix that managed to weld gung-ho action to philosophical questions. 1995’s Ghost in the Shell, though, through its eerie beauty and embrace of the human/AI interface, is the film for the 21st century.

PS Cineworld managed to leave us in the dark at the end: excellent. However, the masking was incorrect; this site suggests the problems endemic.

Stranger Than Fiction (US, 2006)

Stranger than reality

This mildly amusing postmodern piece of frippery, with a stellar cast, the posits mildly anarchic Maggie Gyllenhaal character falling for the totally anodyne IRS exec (Will Ferrell). Why!?! Readers please point me to a movie where an interesting man falls for a boring woman.

That aside, this is barely a romcom as the laughs are muted (mostly concerning Dustin Hoffman’s lit prof.) and, as I said, the romance is er laughable (as in unbelieveable). However it scores a hit on the Bechdel test, so it isn’t all bad but I’ve decided to start counting how many protagonists are male as well.

Bechdel test: Pass (2/2)
Protagonist: M (0/1)

Paprika (Japan, 2006)

Postmodern bodies in a postmodern world

Postmodern bodies in a postmodern world

Shamefully this didn’t get cinematic distribution in the UK but the buzz about it, and Satoshi Kon’s other films, such as Millennium Actress, made sure it was on my DVD rental list. However I was a bit disappointed; visually it is as stunning as the other films I’ve seen by him, but I found the postmodern play on movies and ‘world is a dream’ a bit hackneyed. It was difficult to forget other films, such as Millennium Actress and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), when watching it and so it appeared derivative.

As derived movies go though, and of course that describes virtually the whole of Hollywood, this is brilliantly done.

JCVD (Belguim, Luxembourg, France, 2008)

Haggard but acting

Haggard but acting

It’s very difficult for action heroes to get thespian credibility; Sylvester Stallone got some for Copland (1997) but I can’t imagine Keanu Reeves ever receiving a nice sounding gong. Jean-Claude van Damme lives, as a movie star, in straight-to-video land mostly. He surfaced most prominently in John Woo’s first Hollywood film Hard Target (1993) but I’ve heard little of him since; of course he’s continued to make movies.

JCVD is little more than postmodern fluff, he plays himself caught in a hostage situation in a beseiged Post Office in Belguim, but is worth a watch. Most extraordinary is the scene were, with no narrative motivation, Jean-Claude is elevated above the fracas to bear his soul to camera in a long take. Blimey! Doesn’t he pull it off.

Sex and Lucia (Sexo y Lucia (Spain-France, 2001)

Postmodern tragedy

Postmodern tragedy

Director – Julio Medem
Producer – Fernand Bovaira, Enrique Lopez Lavigne
Script – Julio Medem
Art Direction – Montse Sanz
Cinematography – Kiko de la Rica
Music – Alberto Iglesias
Cast – Paz Vega, Tristan Ulloa, Najwa Nimri, Daniel Freire
Running time 128 mins.

Narrative, and shifting identities, are themes that run through Medem’s films which, along with his striking visual style, have contributed to him being seen as an arthouse auteur. Indeed, it is tempting to go the whole auteur hog and use biographical details of Medem’s life to try and make sense of his films. Although he is a Basque filmmaker he had not made films specifically about the region until his most recent film the documentary La Pelota vasca. La piel contra la piedra (Basque Pelota. Skin Against Stone, Spain, 2003). His films have, however, have dealt with the Civil War (eg Vacas, (Cows),1991) so it is worth noting that his father was German; a particularly important nationality in Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998). But as our perspective on narrative we shall focus on the postmodern narrative of the film.

Postmodern films, amongst a plethora of other things, highlight their own existence as a medium, not in the modernist (or Brechtian) purpose of alienating audiences from the text, as in Vivre sa Vie, but in order to question the notion that anything can have definitive meaning. The title sequence of Sex and Lucia (in Spanish the title, Lucia y El Sexo, draws attention to the character before the libido), appears as if it is being typed – using traditional typewriter font – on a word processor, and a central character is a novelist, the fabricated nature of the film is immediately emphasised.

In mainstream cinema we expect the narrative world (diegesis) presented to be logical, in its own terms. The cause-effect chain of narrative is crucial in creating a convincing canvas on which events are acted out. In Sex and Lucia it soon becomes clear (?!) that the events we are seeing may be a fabrication – a dramatisation of Lorenzo’s novel. Or, it could be that Lorenzo is writing a novel based on his experiences, which we are shown in flashback. In addition, of course, we are aware that we are watching a fictional film peopled by characters. Whether the film is simply an example of postmodern frippery or a profound statement about the human condition (or somewhere in between) is for the audience to decide:

Medem may have disrobed most of the cast, leaving their bodies exposed, but the plot remains as guarded as a virgin with a chastity belt. That’s why Sex and Lucía is so alluring. (Marta Barber Miami Herald, Friday, August 9, 2002 –


“Sex and Lucia” is a beautifully made piece of unwatchable drivel. (Ian Waldron-Mantgani, accessed, October 2003)

Those who are unconvinced by the contrivance of narrative can, at least, enjoy the craftsmanship of the filmmaking and the performances of the cast. In addition pleasure can be gained from the film’s use of the  symbolic code:

•    The moon (the daughter is called Luna), representing female sexuality, is graphically matched (via editing) with a light (Lucia) and a pregnancy test
•    The phallic lighthouse is juxtaposed with a hole that both Lucia and Carlos/Antonio fall into (Lorenzo starts the film by telling Lucia he’s ‘in a hole’); this hole is also at the end of Lorenzo’s story where it takes us back to the middle of the narrative
•    Lucia’s orgasm is followed by Elena giving birth

The postmodern aesthetic is also present in the film’s form as Medem explains:

the movie was shot using CineAlta Hi-Definition 24p. It was incredible. This was the third movie in the world using this format. Since Lucia was escaping from a tragedy, she escapes that beautiful island that she steps on. And suddenly those characters have the right to do with that island whatever they want; for example, with the light. Also, when I went to the island with the camera, I forced the light. This overexposed light that almost blinds you, it’s like the characters erasing themselves and starting from zero, so they can start again. That’s the idea I had when I was shooting with my small camera when I first went to the island…

Every story, in a sense, is a search. You’re searching for the reason for that story to exist. There’s always a destiny. (, accessed October 2003)

Although the film claims, at its conclusion, that stories can change halfway, this obviously isn’t the case with film. The elusiveness of the narrative virtually requires a second viewing but it may remain an enigma, or a chimera according to taste, even after close study.

Millennium Actress (Sennen joyû, Japan, 2001)

The past mingled with movies

The past mingled with movies

This movie flirts with postmodern frivolity but transcends it with a thoughtful, bitter-sweet meditation of memory, life and the impossibility of perfect love. Movies offer the illusion of the latter and the eponymous lead  spends her life seeking her Mr Right who she bumped into twice when a youth. By the end she realises that all she is in love with is the chase.

The conceit of having the interviewers of the actress, at the end of her life, appearing in her ‘flashback’ memories is brilliantly conceived and executed. And we get a smattering of the history of post-war Japanese cinema on the way. The wonderful mixture of wit and visual beauty seems to be characteristic of writer-director Satoshi Kon; I’m looking forward to Paprika (2006).

Fallen Angels (Duo luo tian shi, Hong Kong)

Can't connect

Can’t Connect

This is probably my favourite Wong Kar-Wai film. I love its portrayal of urban alienation and Chris Doyle’s cinematography is sensational. WIth its companion piece, Chungking Express (Chung Hing sam lam, Hong Kong, 1994), Fallen Angels offers a vision of Hong Kong as a hyper-real landscape on the brink (of Chinese takeover). Hong Kong, as a place that is defined by business, is the definitive postmodern environment and the surface glitz of the films’ imagery emphasises this aspect of the place. However, the ‘lost’ and ‘longing’ characters, humanise our understanding of late 20th century existence.

I’m Not There (US-Germany, 2007)

The real Dylan cannot stand up

The real Dylan cannot stand up

This is an incredible rendering of Dylan’s life up until the ’80s. I’m not sure what sense it will make to those unfamiliar with this genius but watching the numerous seminal moments being re-enacted, with the original singing on the ‘track, made a riveting experience. Only the Gere as Billy-in-Pekinpah’s movie didn’t really work for me. And, as the Sight and Sound reviewer suggests, changing Dylan’s word’s in Judas moment in the Free Trade Hall didn’t make sense.

Casting six different actors in the role seems not to make sense but it works wonderfully. From the 11 year old black lad with Woody Guthrie’s guitar to Cate Blanchett’s Dont Look Back turn, all the players embody the Dylan-enigma with panache. Another pairing of Heath Ledger with Christian Bale and here Bale can, too, show what a fine actor he is.

It’s difficult not to love the movie if you love the music – there’s stacks of that – but this is more than postmodern playfulness. Maybe there’s trend as the last two postings have found something interesting in postmodern representations.

Cloverfield (US, 2008)

American liberty has lost its head.

It’s taken 10 years for Blair Witch (1999) to get a proper sequel. Whilst Cloverfield is not as effective as its predecessor, it is a fascinating take on a (western) world at war on terror. It’s not just the camcorder aesthetic that is so effective, much of what is happening is left ‘unsaid’. Or, rather, requires us to draw on other films to fill in the gaps. This isn’t simply postmodern referentiality; we don’t know, for instance, what happens to Marlena but the Alien splatter reference suggests it ain’t good. This also links to a piece of ‘thrown away’ dialogue: ‘they are trying to drag me away’. Putting the Alien ref together with the dialogue suggests that humans are being used to gestate there creatures; and you can only work this out through the references. The film will make sense without knowledge of these films, but it is interesting to see a movie built explicity on its generic inheritance.

The Korean film The Host (Gwoemul, 2006) is also an important antecedant, as is 28 Days Later (UK, 2002).

The film portrays American post-9/11 vulnerability: there’s terrible things out there with no explanation for what’s happening. In doing so it offers a picture of a paranoid mindset that’s turning inward rather trying to understand what’s going on (I saw a trailer for the forthcoming The Mist yesterday – looks very similar).