Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð, Iceland-France-Ukraine, 2018)

Close to nature

We have Revolution Extinction to thank for raising the profile of immanent climate catastrophe and films like co-writer and director Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War can only help, if it gets seen. Kermode points out that the protagonist, Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), has much in common with the Mission: Impossible‘s resourceful Ethan Hunt; and this film is more thrilling because it deals with a potent threat to our existence.

Erlingsson’s previous feature, Of Horses and Men, was an affectionately surreal portrait of Iceland, and it is that country that is the focus of Woman at War; but here it’s land that stands in for the Earth as it is the planet that is under threat. If only we had a sense of the fragility of the ecosystems, as the astronauts of High Life do, serious action would have been taken years ago to ameliorate climate change. Like the folks of Extinction Rebellion, Halla decides to take responsibility for protecting the planet.

The script, co-written with Ólafur Egilsson, is superbly constructed and seamlessly integrates allegorical elements into the narrative; Halla wishes to adopt a Ukrainian 4 year-old, representing hope for the future. The non-diegetic music transpires to be diegetic as the folksy three piece, and Ukrainian trio of voices, often appear in the scene. I can’t recall a non-comedy being so Brechtian with the music and while it serves to remind us we are watching a film, I think it also serves to remind us that the issues raised are real. Incidentally, the music (particularly the singers) is fabulous.

The final image is truly chilling that caps an entertaining thriller with a dose of reality that might even give climate change deniers pause for thought (actually, it won’t as they live in an ideological landscape that denies reality).

Obviously Geirharðsdóttir’s performance is key to the success of the film and her 49 year-old protagonist reminds us that we need unconventional heroes to save us; take a bow Greta Thunberg. Geirharðsdóttir also seamlessly plays her twin sister.

I can’t recommend the film enough because it was both immensely entertaining and up front in portraying the risks that face us. This isn’t an ‘infinity war’ because the battle isn’t going to go on much longer unless we start wining it very soon.

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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.

 

Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben, Spain-France-Italy, 2018)

Not knowing

Asghar Farhadi is one of the few arthouse auteurs whose films are almost guaranteed to be distributed in the UK; possibly because he’s won two ‘best foreigner’ Oscars. Everybody Knows showcases his command of film language, his ability to bend genre and boasts a great cast including Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz and Ricardo Darín.

It also revisits About Elly (Darbareye Elly, Iran-France, 2009) that used the thriller genre trope of a missing person to unravel familial and societal mores of middle class Iranian society. Some reviewers have suggested that Everybody Knows isn’t quite as successful because Farhadi (he wrote and directed) is in a foreign landscape. I don’t know Spain well enough to comment though little of the milieux didn’t ring true and I got a clear sense of the traditional importance of ‘land’ to the locals. What didn’t quite convince me was the use of genre: readers of the blog will know I love melodrama but when a particularly ‘soapy’ narrative development occurs in the film I didn’t feel it worked. It was too generic because, whereas in About Elly we always knew we were in an ‘arthouse’ film, the development centralises melodrama as the defining discourse. That’s not to say the film isn’t gripping and interesting and that’s not simply because Cruz, Bardem and Darín are in the cast. In fact the whole ensemble, the narrative is built around a family wedding, are superb. The early scenes convey with vigour the excitement of a family get together as the camera and editing are almost a whirlwind as the numerous characters are introduced. It is bravura filmmaking.

Another reservation was the conclusion that felt rather abrupt. Sure, Farhadi makes clear the repercussions of the events of the film will continue after the last reel but the psychological trauma of ‘missing’ isn’t addressed. This could be Farhadi using genre to set up an expectation and then not delivering upon it. However, I don’t think my dissatisfaction was caused by its ‘failure’ as a genre film, but the ending didn’t ‘ring’ psychologically true.

I don’t want to end on a negative note because I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Apparently it has been in gestation for some time but Farhadi was waiting for Cruz and Bardem to be available. It was worth the wait and the film is worth seeing if only for the charismatic ease with which these two stars operate. Add Ricardo Darín, the great Argentinean actor who carries the weight of a less flashy role superbly, and you have an unmissable film.

Divines (France-Qatar, 2016)

Friends

Divines is a banlieue film and the expected ingredients of feisty youth being crushed by the forces of the state whilst living in poverty are present. However, there’s enough difference in the film to make it stand out and I preferred it to the similar Girlhood (France, 2014): they both boast female directors and highlight the female experience. Camera d’Or winning debutant, Houda Benyamina who also scripted, has directed a bravura film that welds melodrama to social realism.

Key to the film’s success is the performances of the protagonists, Dounia (Oulaya Amamra, sister of the director) and Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena), as teenagers full of life but who are compromised by poverty. Dounia lives in a shack on a Roma camp and Maimouna’s father who is the local Imam. In a great scene the pair imagine they’re driving a Ferrari around the estate and, in a Spike Lee ‘double dolly’, they move with the camera with added sound effects. In an uncomfortable scene for an ex-teacher, Dounia demolishes her teacher who’s trying to get her to role play the a receptionist. The youngsters are seen, by society, as nothing more than low paid workers so a life in crime is a sensible option. The local drug kingpin is female, a suitably scary Jisca Kalvanda, who takes Dounia on because she’s got ‘clitoris’ (ie not balls). In another scene that feminises the genre, Dounia voyeuristically gazes at the naked body of a male dancer she fancies.

Unsurprisingly in a first feature the film loses its momentum at points, particularly toward the end. However, the incendiary finale wrenches back the drama. The vicious cycle of living in the world of the underclass is illustrated when Dounia, in a fit of youthful mischievousness, throws a bottle at a fire engine crew so later they refuse to enter the estate without a police escort. The audience is encouraged to understand why such things happen but, as a melodrama, is not offering answers (and there’s no reason why it should).

Benyamina seems to be suffering from the difficulty of getting a second film funded, not withstanding her Cannes award. According to imdb.com she’s directed the pilot of Tell Me Your Secrets, an American TV series and an episode of The Eddy (UK) – both 2019. Of course television is not the ghetto it was and these could be interesting. Divines was snapped up by Netflix, after it played the festival circuit, rather than being distributed beyond France. I guess the money on the table is irresistible to filmmakers when faced with the vagaries of international film distribution for a non-Hollywood film.

 

Killing Ground (Australia, 2016) and Don’t Breathe (US, 2016)

Unhappy New Year in Australia

Two critically appreciated horror-thrillers with very different audience reaction: Killing Ground‘s rated 5.8 on imdb and seems to have taken little at the box office; Don’t Breathe gets a 7.1 and took nearly $150m worldwide. Both are superbly well made but for me there’s a crucial difference that makes the Australian film far superior: I cared about the characters.

 

Just deserts?

In the American film, which cost approximately 10 times more to make, the three protagonists are burglars. In Australia, the protagonists are an ‘in love’ couple celebrating New Year in the Outback. Writer-director Damien Power ensures this isn’t sickly-sweet and he’s aided by excellent characterisation by Harriet Dyer and Ian Meadows. Aaron Pedersen adds some charisma as the lumpen proletariat and although the film’s been compared to Deliverance (US, 1972), the film isn’t really about class. So as the burglars break in to a blind man’s house I’m quite happy for him to terrorise them (they have to be quiet hence ‘don’t breathe’). It is true that the narrative configures our sympathy with the youngsters as we learn more about the apparent victim but it’s too late by then; ‘too late’ for me but not most apparently.

Power’s film has plenty of suspense but it becomes clear he’s more interested in the relationship of the lovers; Dyer’s Sam proposes early in the film. How does such a romantic commitment stand up to life-threatening circumstances? Most of the violence is handled well and the worse is off screen though I thought the fate of the baby was miscalculated (I’m not entirely sure what happened as it was pretty dark).

The director of Don’t Breathe, Fede Alvarez (who co-wrote with Rodo Sayagues), handles the darkness well when the blind guy cuts the power to take away the youngsters’ advantage of sight. We’re in Silence of the Lambs (US, 1991) territory with our ‘heroes’ floundering in the dark but we can see as its shot (or post-produced more like) with filters that signifies ‘pitch black’ whilst we can clearly see what’s going on. It’s far better than the ‘day for night’ technique used in Hollywood’s heyday.

Don’t Breathe‘s slated for a sequel (Alvarez has directed the flop The Girl in the Spider’s Web, UK-Swede-Germany-Canada-US, 2018) but I’d rather see Power get another shot; he’s only directed a short since. Hopefully this won’t need to be in Hollywood but unfortunately that’s the path to take to get the finance. I can’t fathom why imdb voters prefer the American film as the Australian is much more emotionally involving; I guess it is because the former has more visceral thrills which is what youngsters tend to be more interested in.

Time Without Pity (UK, 1957)

Failing father

Ben Barzman’s adaptation of Emlyn Williams’ play is a gripping thriller directed by Joseph Losey. It was the first film Losey could actually put his name to, after being blacklisted by McCarthyite America, despite working in Britain since the early ’50s. He brings his usual visual flourishes to this slightly frenzied tale of a dad trying to redeem himself after failing his adult son. The melodrama heightens his failure by giving him 24 hours to prevent his son’s execution for murder. One of the strands of the film is an anti-capital punishment theme added to the play’s narrative.

Despite Losey, the highlight of the film is Michael Redgrave’s performance as the dad, David Graham, who plays a recovering alcoholic and there’s no doubt his own alcoholism informed his tortured performance when he’s trying to resist having a drink. The titanic struggle is writ large across his features (see above) and I don’t think I’ve seen him better. It’s a strong supporting cast though Leo McKern’s Yorkshire accent is a moveable feast. He plays Robert Stanford the ‘upstart’ northern businessman; ‘upstart’ because in marrying Ann Todd’s character he is shown to be out of his social class. Such prejudice is disappointing from a left-wing filmmaker but it does give Todd a good moment when she excoriates her husband’s social climbing. Stanford’s type of character would be better served in ’60s cinema as the working class was often portrayed as authentic as Britain’s deferent ‘national character’ evolved for the better.

In Conversations with Losey (Methuen), the director states that he may have gone over the top in a scene where Graham’s questioning an embittered old woman whose room is full of loudly ticking clocks. As Losey says, he was often criticised for being ‘baroque’, that is ‘over the top’, and thinks that maybe here it was justified. I don’t agree because it adds to the growing hysteria that’s gripping Graham as he feels he’s failing in his task to prove his son innocent. Losey also notes that he didn’t direct the racetrack scene very well and it certainly feels an unnecessary adjunct to the narrative though it does help characterise the particularly male stupidity that informs McKern’s character.

The ending is particularly effective as a demonstration how far a parent will go to save their child. A very well-made film crowned by Redgrave’s brilliant performance.

The Final Hour (La Hora Final, Peru, 2017)

Political-personal civil war

Spain has numerous films that deal with the psychological aftermath of Franco’s fascist state (such as the recently blogged Marshland) and Peru, too, is trying to come to terms with what was effectively a civil war between authoritarian government and Maoist guerillas. The Final Hour refers to the endgame when the terrorists’ (the ‘Shining Path’) leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured. Afterwards, the revolutionary movement started to splinter and fade.

Writer-director Eduardo Mendoza de Echave has used the tropes of the detective genre to investigate both the political machinations of the time, and the impact the war had on individuals. Generically it’s conventional (the maverick detective, an under-resourced unit, office politics getting in the way, dysfunctional families etc.), however by placing it in the context of Peru in 1992, we get a fascinating insight into the reality of that time and place.

I was particularly taken by the performance of Nidia Bermejo (above right) as a nurse-turned-cop; the career switch was in response to the indiscriminate bombings of the terrorists. She’s indigenous and her brother is involved with the ‘Shining Path’ and so her loyalties are severely torn. Although the film is clear about who the good guys are (the detectives), the state is shown to be as bad as the rebels.

The film’s based on fact and it is interesting to see how Guzmán was finally captured but it is the personal costs involved in living in a state of civil war that are the most important aspect of the film. Apparently it was a hit in Peru, suggesting a hunger to deal with the past. Imdb lists its budget as a barely credible $30,000; for that it is an astounding achievement. (Netflix)