Thursday, 24 November 2011

Neighbours (1952)

Directed by Norman McLaren
Canada, 1952

A 1952 Oscar-winning short, anti-war film by Scottish-Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren. Produced at the National Film Board of Canada in Montreal, the film uses the technique known as pixilation, an animation technique using live actors as stop-motion objects.

Two men live peacefully in adjacent cardboard houses. When a flower blooms between their houses, they fight each other to the death over the ownership of the single small flower.

In 2009, Neighbours was added to UNESCO's Memory of the World Programme, listing the most significant documentary heritage collections in the world.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Directed by Lynne Ramsay
UK/ US, 2011
Lynne Ramsay’s bold adaptation of Lionel Shriver's 2003 best-selling novel of the same name “We Need to Talk About Kevin” was just named best film at the BFI London Film Festival.
It is not an easy watch and perhaps not for someone approaching childbirth for the first time as “We Need To Talk About Kevin” might just be the scariest film about parenting ever made. It's probably more something to be endured rather than enjoyed and once the credits roll most audiences will be breathing a sigh of relief, happy that it's over. Yet, I think it is one of the best movies I saw this year. It dramatise the before-and-after life of a woman whose son has carried out a slaughter in an American high school. The film has been given a cruel added resonance by this summer's real-life massacre of innocent teenagers in Norway.
Tilda Swinton plays Eva Khatchadourian, once a hip, city-loving travel writer, a woman seemingly full of passion for life. Then frustrated mother living in a big house in the suburbs, with her naive husband, played by John C. Reilly and increasingly malign and manipulative first-born child Kevin. Eventually a lonely woman struck numb by the realisation that she has reared a mass murderer. With Kevin locked up in prison, she becomes the target of anger, hatred and incrimination.
Eva is essentially passive. She calmly receives a savage slap in the face from one of the massacre victim's mothers, feels like she has to hide out amongst soup cans when she spots another bereaved parent in the supermarket and unprotestingly accepts broken eggs, another petty act of revenge, at the checkout or buckets of red paint thrown on her home and car. She grapples with her feelings of grief and responsibility. Did she ever love her son? And how much of what Kevin did was her fault?
Eva was never a perfect mother. Motherhood haven't come easily to this adventurous, fiercely independent, some might say selfish woman, especially when faced with an angry, baby. One of Ramsay’s most memorable sequences shows Eva pushing Kevin's pram alongside a ear-battering construction site so that the rattle of the jackhammers drowns out his screams and gives her a few brief seconds of peace. On the other occasion she quite frankly admits she'd rather be in Paris than sitting with him at that moment. As she's reflecting on her son formative years, throughout which she was convinced that there was something seriously wrong with him, she wonders whether her ambivalence towards motherhood, the weird displacement of pregnancy, could have ultimately affected Kevin's life. Eva is trying to cope with the sins of her son and the guilt of whether she should, or could, have done anything differently.
It's not spoiling anything to mention the massacre at the school - the audience, just like Eva knows something bad is going to happen and spends the film anxiously waiting for it. Wisely, Ramsay avoids showing the event in detail, instead delving deeply into Kevin's complex psychology and his twisted relationship with the family. However, this is not a film about a sociopath, more a tale of how a mother copes with this terrible legacy. Swinton gives us a lot of insight into the character's mounting horror as she realizes exactly the kind of monster she's given birth to.
Lynne Ramsay' s particularly bold use of red and music makes this story even more disturbing. Extremely good movie. The award was fully deserved.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Twenty-Four Eyes

Directed by Keisuke Kinoshita

Japan, 1954

Keisuke Kinoshita was one of the most prolific Japanese postwar directors, producing 42 films in 23 years, and then going on to a career in television. He is noted for his films about the suffering of women, especially mothers, and the strong performances of female stars in them.

„Twenty-Four Eyes” is an adaptation of a novel by the female writer Sakae Tsuboi. Set in a picturesque island in the Inland Sea, and covering a 20-year time span embracing prewar, wartime and early postwar Japan, it centres on the relationship between a primary school teacher and the 12 island children in her first class. (The 12 children explain the 24 eyes of the title). In the course of the film, she faces problems of acceptance by the children and their parents, then ideological criticism from the educational authorities, then wartime privations and losses in her family and among her pupils. The hardships of the young girls in her class, forced by economic privation and/or death of their parents to leave school and support their families, are stressed; as is the destiny of the young boys to become cannon fodder. The film concludes with a tearful reunion between the bereaved teacher and her original pupils, whose ranks are sadly depleted by the suffering of the past decade.

The film evinces a characteristic attitude towards World War II among the Japanese – an attitude of sorrow rather than remorse. In the early years of the Occupation, the Japanese cinema briefly gave voice to anger and protest against the sins of prewar and wartime leaders, who had “misled” the nation, but by the 1950s this attitude had given way to a more amorphous wallowing in sorrow and a general feeling of victimhood. Made soon after the end of the Occupation, when memories of the war were still fresh, Twenty Four Eyes functioned both as a symptom of these prevalent attitudes and an aid to their consolidation; it was welcomed by domestic audiences, giving them the opportunity to indulge in mourning. The film was not only a popular one, it also garnered the award of Best Film of the year from the national film critics. When you consider that 1954 was a year of prodigious achievements in the Japanese cinema – the year of Kurosawa’s "Seven Samurai"– it was an astounding coup for Kinoshita. It appears the critics, as well as the public, responded to a certain Zeitgeist in which a soft and diffused backward look on their own recent past was highly valued.

"Twenty Four Eyes" remained a favorite with Japanese audiences for decades after its production. Its use of music and cinematography alone is conducive to an indulgence in nostalgia. The film is punctuated with choruses of well-known children’s songs, appealing to the Japanese audience’s sentimental memories of their own childhood; and, for modern urban Japanese, the picturesque island setting with its small old-fashioned village community arouses nostalgia for the furusato, the old home town, where life was simpler if more arduous, apparently timeless and changeless. Both triggers of nostalgia, childhood and furusato, are brought together in the children’s song “Furusato”, sung repeatedly during the film.

The heroine, Miss Oishi, played by Hideko Takamine, is a teacher who is modern in dress and educational practice but also very maternal towards her pupils as well as being a mother herself. She voices some critical opinions, but these had become commonplace in postwar Japan, given the benefit of hindsight. Even in the prewar setting, she is not threatening; on the contrary, she is supremely comforting, a loving and loyal friend to her past pupils, and fellow sufferer in the trials and tribulations of the times they live through. She may be more educated and middle class than they are but that does not make her exempt from suffering and loss. She, like the villagers, suffers wartime privation and loss of a child and a husband. They are all scarred and aged by the war. As in wartime ideology, the Japanese are represented as more united than divided. Differences of class, gender and even political opinion are finally rendered less important than a common experience of suffering. The audience is invited to empathise with Miss Oishi and her pupils, and to shed copious tears.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Autumn reading

Now that summer is definitely over I should turn towards the pile of books, I've collected over last few weeks.

The Story of Film by Mark Cousins

A gateway to hours of movie watching.

This edition of The Story of Film, published to coincide with the fascinating 15-hour film documentary that is now aired in UK TV. Apparently it's the most accessible and compelling history of the medium yet published. The book is divided into three main epochs: Silent (1885-1928), Sound (1928-1990) and Digital (1990-Present). Film critic, producer and presenter, Mark Cousins shows how film-makers are influenced both by the historical events of their times, and by each other. Film is an international medium, so as well as covering the great American films and film-makers, the book explores cinema in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and South America, and shows how cinematic ideas and techniques cross national boundaries.

Directory of World Cinema: Spain

Bought yesterday at the London Spanish Film Festival this latest volume of the renowned Intellect collection offers an insight into Spanish national cinema through a series of reviews, essays and interviews covering key players and genres in their sociopolitical context.

24 Frames: The Cinema of Latin America

Similar idea: through twenty-four essays, each considering one significant film or documentary, the editors of this volume have compiled a unique introduction to the cinematic output of countries as diverse as Brazil, Argentina, Cuba, Mexico, Bolivia, Chile and Venezuela.

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Skin I Live In

The Skin I Live In

Original title: La Piel Que Habito

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Spain, 2011

“The Skin I Live in” reunites Almodóvar with the first star that he launched – Antonio Banderas. The films Almodóvar and Banderas made together in the 1980s – “Labyrinth of Passion”, “Matador”, “Law of Desire”, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” and “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" – formed one of the most iconic onscreen collaboration. Hollywood has truly wasted Banderas's potential. Now, twenty-one years after the 1990's “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” they are back together with a loose adaptation of Thierry Jonquet’s novel ‘Mygale’ (published in English as Tarantula) - the story of diabolical plastic surgeon, whose skills allow him to take control of the people's life in ways unimaginable to anyone but him. The bones of the film's character might be based on the novel, but the rest is all Almodóvar.

“The Skin I Live In” is a story of revenge. Dr Robert Ledgard (Banderas), an eminent plastic surgeon and grief-stricken widower is engaged in an ethically dubious experiment to create a new artificial skin, which he believes, could have saved his wife life. She committed suicide after being horrifically burned in a road accident. Ever since this tragic event Robert becomes obsessed in his search for medical perfection of the idea he developed: heat- and pain-resistant, although still sensitive to the touch, transgenic skin.

In addition to years of study and experimentation, Robert needed three things: no scruples, an accomplice and a human guinea pig. Scruples were never a problem. Marilia (Marisa Paredes, another Almodóvar regular), the woman who looked after him from the day he was born, for reasons known only to her, is his most faithful accomplice. And as for the human guinea pig there's Vera (Sex And Lucia 's Elena Anaya), whom he holds captive in his vast, seemingly inescapable isolated mansion El Cigarral.

The less said about the story, the better. Almodovar cleverly uses flashback to unsettlingly reveal who Vera really is, an outrageous, sexually perverse twist that only he could get away with. Almodóvar’s vision is more ominous than anything I've seen before. The subject is extreme, and the plot so grotesque yet, Almodovar is Almodovar - he has the ability to turn highly disturbing plots into something beautiful. He is constantly testing the limits of plausibility – looked at objectively, the plot appears absurd – but his meticulous craftsmanship and confident storytelling ensures it remains riveting. With “The Skin I Live In” once again he revealed his genius for turning the ridiculous into the sublime.

Dr Ledgard is possibly the director’s most sinister character, but his lunacy is rooted in a domestic tragedy which is instantly humanising. I was never quite sure whether Robert is the mad scientist-style psychopath or a tragic hero. His personal life was already messy when he finds himself falling unexpectedly in love with his most beautiful, and certainly the most unusual, patient. Frankenstein is seduced by his own beautiful monster. Elena Anaya, re-teaming with Almodóvar after a small part in 2002’s “Talk To Her”, is fantastic as the object of Dr Ledgard obsessions. Most of the time totally covered by a flesh-coloured bodysuit that clings to her like a second skin, she spends her life locked up in a room in Robert 's idyllic Toledo mansion, a tastefully-designed deluxe prison.

For anyone who's familiar with Almodóvar's body of work, it is clear that while often appearing frivolous, he explores profound emotional and intellectual matters. He loves self-referencing. Same pieces. Different puzzle. In '”The Skin I Live In” Almodóvar, once again, is playing with themes of power, identity and sexuality. Skin is the frontier that separates us from others, it determines the race to which we belong, it reflects our roots, whether biological or geographical. Although Vera decided that “she has to learn to live within her skin”, even if it is a skin imposed by Dr. Robert, she hasn’t lost her identity. Yet, skin is what appears to define us and, our identity is being shaped by the skin we live in and gaze upon in the mirror. Indeed, a crucial scene sees Robert's wife mortified by looking at what has happened to her face after the accident.

“The Skin I Live In” is beautifully put together. Visuals are stunning, as expected. I can't think of any other director who uses colour as well as Almodovar. Endowed with an extraordinary voice Spanish singer Concha Buika is getting the exposure that she so deserves in the scene as potent as Caetano Veloso singing in “Talk To Her.”

This is a thrilling, edgy, riveting and superbly realised piece of work. Fantastically twisted and provocative story that leaves you wondering who’s heroic, villainous, an oppressor or a victim. Bloody excellent movie. Almodovar at his best.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Ball of Fire, 1941

I'm discovering classic Hollywood cinema. For the sake of music mostly. This tune is awesome, as the movie itself. Directed by Howard Hawks with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. Great fun!

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Wednesday, 1 June 2011



Directed by Natalia Smirnoff
Argentina/France 2010

The film’s opening sequence brilliantly shows María del Carmen’s (subtly underplayed by Maria Onetto) life. We see lots of running and bustling about. The main character with bunches of trays and platters is moving back and forth between the kitchen and the room full of guests, serving dishes, replacing missing chorizzo, pausing only to sweep broken plate. Its only after she brings out a cake featuring a big "50" in candles and blow them out, that we realize it is her own birthday.

After all that cooking, serving and cleaning up (unassisted, of course) Maria takes a look at the pile of gifts she’s received and discovers among them something that intrigues her: a jigsaw puzzle depicting Nefertiti, queen of ancient Egypt. She stays up the rest of the night piecing it together and makes an astonishing discovery: not only it's a soothing respite from her domestic duties but she's also extremely good at it. It seems like puzzle pieces just naturally come together for her, she simply has a knack for it. Overflowing with enthusiasm for her new-found talent, she goes back to the shop where her present was bought, a store that specializes in nothing but puzzles, to get another, more difficult ones (especially that her husband denied her a new puzzle when they were out shopping). Inside the shop she comes across an ad on the notice board: "Partner wanted for puzzle tournament" and, much to her own surprise, decides to respond to it. Which turns more complicated than we might think as there's only email address given and Maria, a suburban housewife, has never touched a computer.

Eventually, without letting her family know, she meets rich elderly bachelor Roberto (Arturo Goetz), who lives in an impressive mansion in town. Maria's raw talent hugely impresses him, he's enchanted by her anarchistic way of solving puzzles and unorthodox but rapid technique. Together they decide to enter puzzle tournament in Germany but first they must win the local one.

Fearing the reaction of her family, Maria is developing her hidden talent at nights and resorts to little lies so that she can train in peace with Roberto. When she decides to share the news about forthcoming tournament with her husband and sons, she's initially met with bewilderment and bemusement. But Maria is undaunted. Thanks to the puzzles not only she begins to free herself from mundane domestic routine but also reinvigorates her sense of self, looks at her life from a new perspective, and opens up for new possibilities, that so far could only be a dream for her.

Rather than a grand story of empowerment, “Puzzle” is simply about finding little pleasures in life. This delicate feature debut of Natalia Smirnoff, who has spend the last decade as assistant director and casting director for the likes of Pablo Trapero and Lucrecia Martel, presents humorous but insightful look at the housewife quietly finding her passion and asserting her independence. María Onetto, Argentina's best actress of recent times, has the perfect presence for the weary yet still striking María del Carmen, portraying her frustrations and small satisfactions in a exquisite way. Maria del Carmen is the kind of person utterly devoted to others and therefore taken for granted by her kids and husband. But it would be wrong to characterize Maria as completely meek. She’s chosen a life in response to her workoholic husband, who runs a small business, who expects Maria to remember to replenish his favorite cheese, rather than going to the store and getting the groceries himself. Surprisingly, under the influence of the simple thing like puzzle, something has changed and Maria's life transforms. It's hard to call it revolution, because in fact not much is different - Maria is still calm, focused and patient mother and wife. The new thing is that puzzles make her, and only her happy (“What’s the point of this?” asks her husband. “I like it,” responds Maria.) It's something that she's doing entirely for herself. Probably for the very first time in her life. She discovers completely new, unknown to her before emotions: satisfaction with herself, the joy of competition. But most of all, she discovers her own needs.

What's best in the movie and admirable about Smirnoff’s direction is the lack of simplification. Maria is not a passive and oppressed victim of domestic patriarchy, her husband is not a soulless macho, and their children are not selfish and self- obsessed. They all look for something that would give them happiness and belong only to them. Maria's husband, who spends all days behind the counter of his store, under the influence of his co-worker begins to attend classes of tai-chi. His serious explanation of the proper flow of energy at first is met with exactly the same dismay as when Maria told him about puzzle tournament. Elder son of Maria decides to work in a big company and rebels against linking his future with his father business. Younger attempts to embrace veganism and dreams of going to India to find himself. Everyone is trying to find a space for being themselves. It's very clear in Maria's case: she's on a different wavelength from her husband and kids, but the same goes for her relationship with the sophisticated Roberto. She doesn't truly fit in either world.

Natalia Smirnoff's debut film charms with simplicity and sincerity. If this movie teach us something is how important it is to learn what gives us joy, instead of trying to make happy everybody around. Only after we find it, making others happy makes sense. In a late moment in the film, Maria orders the family to help her clean out a spare room so that she can do puzzles there. And in this act of cleaning, the family begins to dance in a rather spontaneous way. Smirnoff’s optimistic suggestion is that the fun moments in life often happen when you help those who are close to you with their interests, however crazy or ordinary they may seem. And that it’s never too late for anyone to find this interest.

The story line in “Puzzle” is simple, yet deep. It's quiet and very subtle film, it is definitely recommended to viewers who can appreciate such qualities. And shame on those who can’t.

Thursday, 28 April 2011


Directed by Philippe Lioret
France, 2009

Like "La Haine", the cult film that in 1995 brought in to global attention the plight of young people from different cultural backgrounds living in France's deprived suburbs, “Welcome” is another example of French cinema that provoked a storm of controversy.

The director Philippe Lioret portrays with brutal honesty the lives of refugees trying to reach the UK from France - the cold, hunger, violence from police and between each other, but also the risks run by those who try to help them. It shows what dirty work that French state does to make both, refugees and charity workers, lives a misery.

The film is set in Calais, a gathering point for illegal migrants, determined to get to England by any means possible, whatever the price. One of them is Bilal (played by novice actor Firat Ayverdi), a 17-year-old Kurd from Iraq, who has spent the last three months traveling illegally across Europe in an attempt to reunite with his girlfriend, who recently emigrated to England. His difficult journey is almost over when he finally reaches the far northern coast of France, and can literally see his destination from across the Channel. But it is here that his journey comes to an abrupt halt as local authorities, and the immigration laws they are enforcing, prevent him from going any further. With no other options left, since he failed to sneak hidden in a lorry, Bilal devises a plan to swim across the bitterly cold waters of the Channel. He heads to the local swimming pool to train, where he's coached by Simon (Vincent Lindon), a middle-aged swimming instructor in the middle of divorce process, who quickly divines what his young immigrant pupil is preparing to do. Simon's attempts to dissuade him from his mission fall on deaf, brave ears. Bilal seems oblivious to the danger he faces with his naïve, headstrong optimism (asked what he's going to do in UK answers that he will try to join Manchester United, because he plays soccer well), but Simon, although not entirely sure why he is helping him in his mad quest, clearly admires the boy's sacrifices for love especially when he compares Bilal's passion to his own failed marriage. “I couldn't even cross the road to get you back”, he tells his soon-to-be-ex-wife in a one of the scenes. Despite initial disinterest and to win back the affections of his liberal wife, after her taunt that he stood by and said nothing when the 'illegals' were thrown out of a supermarket for “upsetting the locals”, Simon allows Bilal to stay in his place for a few days. With a time their friendships develops and Simon comes to appreciate the plight of migrants around Calais and the risks charity workers (one of them being his ex-wife) take in helping them. Both characters show enormous strength. Bilal has the strength to do all it takes for love, and Simon has the courage to risk everything for this ambitious, illegal immigrant as very soon, he becomes threaten by local police as well.

The film paints a harsh picture of Calais.“It’s like our US-Mexican border,” says French filmmaker, describing the location for his film. It shows immigrants running away from dogs and police. Cold and hungry, they wander about the town, sleeping in the woods around the port known as “the jungle”. This so-called "jungle", a makeshift camp-site, is the result of the closure of Red Cross-run Sangatte refugee centre in late 2002. Other horrific scenes show migrants hidden in trucks wrapping their heads in plastic bags to avoid carbon dioxide detectors. But most of all Lioret's film was aimed at criticising a French law that makes it a crime to help illegal immigrants. That was one of the real issues behind the film; for Lioret it is “sinful” to have a law that makes helping an illegal migrant a criminal offence in France. What he wants are four little words “à des fins lucratives” (for financial purposes) added to that law; “Yes we must punish those who make money out of misery but no we must not punish solidarity.” He went so far as to compare this situation to Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War, saying the constant raids and arrests are "like something out of the 1940s”; “to see that a decent guy can all of a sudden be charged and imprisoned for helping a migrant is crazy. It feels like it's 1943 and we've hidden a Jew in the basement”. Obviously this comparison upset many people, among them French Immigration minister Eric Besson, who found it “unbearable” and said said Lioret has "crossed a red line" in an effort to generate publicity for the film. For me the reference to Second World War is also a little bit too much but “Welcome” is definitely increasing public awareness about the plight facing immigrants not only in France, but all around the world and that's a good thing. In the end immigration is one of the most important social issues at the moment.

I'm very glad I saw this film, it evoked all the feelings I thought U.S.-Mexican “Sin Nombre” would, but failed to do. Philippe Lioret's film is a superb, personal account of one man's protest against inhuman law system. Though the word 'politics' is never mentioned in this tremendously powerful tale, “Welcome” is clearly political. In the end it's hard to imagine for a drama about immigration in a country as multicultural as France not to be. Very good movie indeed!


We meet Bilal when he's almost at the end of his journey, and never get to know how did he reach that far. But there's a movie that can give some insight into the fortunes of illegal immigrants traveling through Europe: "In this word" directed by British director Michael Winterbottom. The story of Jamal, Afghan orphan already born in exile in Pakistan, shows with great detail in his tremendous journey from Pakistan to London. This is a true story shot in semidocumentary style with no happy ending in sight.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Me Life Without Me

Directed by Isabel Coixet
Canada/Spain, 2003

Young woman in her early 20s discovers she's dying of cancer. She uses the little time she has left trying to do the things she always wanted and setting things up for those around her. Yes..., if you read the synopsis of this film, it sounds unbearably maudlin and weepy. And yet it is such a good film!

Ann (Sarah Polley) is a hard-working 23-year-old mother with two small daughters, a husband who spends most of the time unemployed (Scott Speedman), a mother who hates the world (Blondie's Debbie Harry in a remarkably unglamorous role) and a jailed father (Alfred Molina) whom she has not seen in ten years. She lives with her small family in a trailer on the backyard of her mother's house, in the outskirts of Vancouver and works nights as a cleaner at the local university, a place that reminds her of the life that’s passed her by. Ann knows that by falling pregnant at the age of 17 and getting married with the only men she ever kissed, her first and only love Don, she missed out on a lot of what life has to offer, but it's not all that bad after all. Her life's tough, opportunities very limited, but still she has managed to build a warm, loving family. She is certainly not an unhappy person.

Then, one day, during a medical checkup following a collapse, she is diagnosed with advanced-stage ovarian cancer and told she has only about two months to live. The cancer has already spread and become inoperable. This prognosis seems so cruelly unjust that even the doctor can hardly utter it. The scene when Ann is delivered the news is really devastating. In a way it also feels ironic, since she has never really lived her life anyway. Ann takes it quite stoically. Using the cover of anaemia, she decides to keep her condition a secret, and refuses to tell anybody, not even her loved ones, about her impending death. Instead she makes a "Things to Do Before I Die" list. These range from the mundane (getting her hair and nails done, smoking and drinking), to really significant ones (making someone fall in love with her). Little by little she completes all of them, visiting her estranged father in prison, improving relationship with her mother, having an affair with another man. Her decision to "sleep with another man, just to see what it's like", leads her to an encounter with Lee (Mark Ruffalo), which evolves in something much deeper than she probably expected starting it. Most importantly she's prearranging details of her family's life following her death, of “her life without her”. That includes finding a new women for her husband that her daughters will like and recording series of birthday tapes for her two daughters for every year up until they 18, preparing them for a life without her.

“My Life Without Me” was the first English-language project from Pedro Almodóvar's El Deseo company and the directing debut of Isabel Coixet. The plot was inspired by a short story by Nanci Kincaid titled "Pretending the Bed Is a Raft" but Coixet made a few changes, most notably she let the main character keep her terminal illness a secret from her family and friends. While Coixet's decision allowed her to avoid overdosing on sentimentality, for many viewers Ann's refusal to share the news with those that most deserved to know was very troubling. They couldn't believe anyone would be so cruel as to deny her loved ones the chance to say goodbye. But she simply does not want to see people around her with long faces, and obsessed with her approaching death. Through a series of beautiful and poignantly honest recordings to her family, Ann explains her choices and asks for forgiveness. Preparation of these recordings are the film's best scenes - well-acted, well-scripted, deeply touching, often emotionally devastating. In one of those scenes, Ann sits alone in a car trying to speak clearly into her tape recorder. "Now you're five," she says, before kissing the microphone. A few tapes later she says to her other daughter: "If you get a new mum, try and love her, OK?"

It is a smart and charming film, although sometimes I've found the plot too contrived. The moment when this attractive young girl, also named Ann, moves in next door and shares the story about conjoined twins, the movie loses a bit of its credibility it had maintained up to that point. Also Coixet's use of extreme close-ups is sometimes nagging. What Coixet has done splendidly was the choice of actors. A cast of indie-flick darlings is extremely well-assembled, and adds some quirkiness to the film (“Pulp Fiction” Maria de Medeiros, appears as a braid-wearing hair stylist obsessed with Milli Vanilli). The greatest of them is of course Sarah Polley, her subtle, understated performance is particularly impressive and makes this movie work. She's so ordinary in her extraordinary condition. In “My Life Without Me” she doesn't play a survivor, she's really tender, vulnerable. But there is no lapse into melodrama, and blessedly few tears. Instead of this there is plenty of sweet moments and quite a lot of ironic humour. The rest is told with silence, the prospect of incredible pain and suffering is there, but we actually never get to see it. It's a different take on the portrayal of terminal illness.

“My Life Without Me” is low-key, thoughtful, very touching and very sad but also quite a buoyant film. It has a first-rate cast and surprisingly lot of humour and joy in it. In essence it's a kind of fairy tale. Strange to write it about a film with such a serious subject but that is how it feels.... Beautiful, sad fairy tale about the efforts to live the life to the fullest and leave some legacy behind.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

The Official Story

original title: La Historia Oficial
Directed by Luis Puenzo
Argentina, 1985

"The Official Story" was a winner of many awards, including the Oscar in foreign language category, being not only the first Argentinian film to win it (the second would be "The secret of their eyes" in 2010), but actually the first Latin American that has achieved it. Not that getting an Oscar really mean something... After all Oscars never had credibility for those who seriously took cinema as an art form. There has always been a very heavy political and commercial sense of purpose attached to these awards. Most probably this is why “The Official Story” has won it. It may not be a great movie from a strictly cinematic point of view and it represents quite conventional approach to narrative, but in terms of political and emotional intensity it's big. It was made shortly after the Falklands/ Malvinas War which brought the end of military regime that governed the country from 1976 to 1983, and the courage of everybody involved in the project was enormous.

"The Official Story" is almost textbook example of how to use a personal story to tell and illuminate much larger one. The plot is an intensely political. Through the story of a single family and one woman's realisation of unknowing complicity to the reign of terror, the film deals with the horror of Argentina's ‘dirty war’, when thousands of suspected enemies of the state were taken to clandestine prisons where they were tortured and murdered. It also raises questions concerning the fate of children who were taken from their prisoned parents and given to childless families living in good terms with military regime. While doing so, the director of the film opted for a quite interesting perspective and focused not on the mothers who lost their children, but on a woman who gained a child.

Alicia (Norma Aleandro) and Roberto (Hector Alterio) are happily married, affluent couple living comfortable life in Buenos Aires with their adopted daughter, the five year old Gaby (beautiful performance of Analia Castro). She's a high school history teacher, he's a prosperous businessman that has successfully climbed the socioeconomic ladder owing to his connections with the military leadership. Alicia's well ordered, easy and happy life begins to fall apart after an unsettling reunion with her long-time friend Ana (Chunchuna Villafane), that has just returned to Argentina after living several years in exile in Europe. During an evening together, she reveals in vivid detail that years ago she was taken from her home, held prisoner and tortured for more than a month by members of the former regime as they attempted to extort from her the whereabouts of her "subversive" partner. From Ana Alicia learns that many others had been held prisoner, tortured, murdered, and that infants had been taken from their mothers and handed over to families related to the military junta. Ana's story makes Alicia uncomfortable, as she starts to wonder about her adopted child's true origins. She has no idea where Gabi came from, it was Roberto who arranged the adoption. She questions her husband to unravel the mystery and clear her conscience about the situation, but he dismisses her, saying that she should not be concern with it. It's easy to see that her husband knows more about their adopted daughter’s origins than he is willing to acknowledge. Alicia finds herself asking more and more questions, and since Roberto is aggressively evasive and always reacts badly when Alicia enquires into Gaby's parentage, she slowly begins to suspect that the baby her successful husband brought home five years before is the daughter of a murdered political prisoner.

A further area of upset concerns Alicia's history classes. Her students start questioning her strict adherence to the history she presents solely from the government-approved books. Alicia always believed only what she read and during the course sticked to official textbooks and historical documents but her students are routinely disbelieving it and contesting that “history is written by assassins”. Some of her radicalised by political events of recent years students bring her photos of 'desaparecidos', the victims of the military government’s repression of real and imaginary leftist groups, people taken by the army and never returned. Tormented by the information that Ana revealed and those that her students share with her, Alicia gradually starts to doubt in the ‘official story’ and decides to investigate herself the circumstances of her adopted daughter’s birth.

In her increasingly frantic and desperate search, Alicia meets Sara (Chela Ruiz), member of the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, woman whose daughter and son-in-law disappeared during 'dirty war'. Misunderstanding the situation and assuming that Alicia is also looking for her relatives, Sara helps her by showing numerous albums with the people who were abducted and tells the story of her own family. It seems almost certain that Gabi is her grandchild. Appearance of a Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a large group of women who demonstrate regularly demanding to know what has happened to their missing children and grandchildren, is a turning point in Alicia's life that leads to political awareness. The movie requires some knowledge of Argentina's history and society. While it is completely possible not to know about previous regime's practices on adoptions, it is still not easy to believe that an educated woman could be as oblivious as Alicia to the horrors being committed in her country. But in fact many members of the Argentinian middle class were only vaguely aware of the disappearance of people, tortures and other atrocities committed during this most sinister and dark episode in Argentina's history.

Alicia learns a lot, and comes to know her society as she had never imagined it. The discovery of the shady dealings of her husband who has prospered greatly in business with the Americans and generals during the military regime ruins her marriage. Roberto combines power and softness, tenderness toward Alicia and Gaby with ruthlessness toward those he considers troublemakers. His wife may be an innocent, but he knew reality behind the previous system very well. The viewer can only imagine what he has seen and done in his climb to success.

It is a movie that asks some very difficult questions, like: should the mothers of children adopted during military regime investigate their origins? Is their own love to them less true? What would be "best" for those children? It shows some positive changes in Argentina. The fact that Alicia’s friend Ana is able to return to the country after being tortured and exiled can be interpreted as a civil triumph. Similarly, the students’ rejection of the ‘official story.’ It also shows the church’s failure to react to political realities, Alicia's priest refuses to help or even listen to her. Now, many years later we know about church complicity to the regime.

“The Official Story” imposes no ideology or doctrine, the first-time director Luis Puenzo is simply committed to human rights. Rather than dramatising the crimes of the dictatorship, the director has used a middle class family to tell subtly the sufferings of Argentinian society during the the years of dirty war. Thousands of people really were murdered in Argentina and the country has still not got over the nightmare suffered under the dictatorship. Military officers involved in killings are even now brought to justice, the efforts to identify potential children of the ‘desaparecidos’ are still ongoing and the scars have not healed yet. I'm not sure if that kind of trauma can ever be healed...

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Another Year

Directed by Mike Leigh
UK 2010

Mike Leigh’s customary blend of well observed, wonderfully acted human dramas are an acquired taste and "Another Year" is definitely not for Mike Leigh beginners. It's long, it's depressing, and has virtually no narrative. It would be difficult to imagine anyone calling it an enjoyable experience...

A stunning opening vignette features Imelda Staunton, as a coarse, unsmiling woman, tersely fencing off a medical counsellor who's been trying to get to the bottom of her insomnia. "On a scale of one to 10 how happy would you say you are?" the patient states briefly: "One." "If you could change one thing that would make your life better, what would it be?” "Different life" replies the grim-faced Staunton. This sets the mood for entire movie in which feeling of sadness is never really absent.

"Another Year" is an intimate drama about ordinary people: family-and-friends group portrait. Its central figures are Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a happily and longtime married upper middle-class London couple, who have entered late middle age content with their lives, fulfilled in their careers (he is a geologist, she a mental health counsellor), serene about the thought of imminent retirement and devoted to their allotment. Beyond some joking concern that their 30-year-old son Joe (Oliver Maltman) is still single, they live in complete happiness. They’re also social creatures. They like to grow things, then cook and serve them to friends and relatives with a nice glass of wine. It’s their interaction with others that Leigh focuses on, mostly in their home, over their kitchen table. Together they form an island of sanity, stability and calm amid an unsettled circle of their friends, whose lives have not gone so smoothly.

Tom and Gerri's home has become a a place of refuge for lost and damaged souls. No one depends more on these two than Mary (Lesley Manville), a secretary in the GP's office where Gerri works, who's been a family friend for years. She’s single and unhappy, with a traumatic love history, but tries to hide her insecurity through talking a great deal, wishful thinking, delusions about her age and most of all alcohol. Mary emerges as the film’s great tragedy, the embodiment of Gerri’s comment: ‘Life’s not always kind, is it?’ She has made mistakes in her life - a bad marriage in her twenties, a failed affair with a married man a decade later - she has lost the most valuable years, now becoming more and more desperate, panicked at being alone forever. Her presence turns ‘Another Year’ from a study of contentment into a portrait of loneliness and longing. Mary tests the patience of both her friends and viewers, bringing us to the limits of compassion when she developes a somewhat desperate and hopeless fantasy of having a relationship with the couple's thirty-year-old son Joe, which cause her temporarily exile from their welcoming house.

"Another Year" is structured into four sections, each named after a season, each having its own particular narrative line. Different seasons are portrayed convincingly, from the bright spring and summer colours to the cold winter greys accompanying the bleak mood. It's a typical character driven film with very little to speak of in terms of plot. Through Tom and Gerri, as the year passes, we meet other characters. Some, we encounter briefly, such as Gerri’s depressed patient from opening scene; others, we come to know better. There is no climax, just passing of different seasons and people. Leigh warmly observes a married couple and their relations with family and friends. Apart from profoundly lonely divorcee Mary there is Ken, Tom's lifelong friend, who visits them every now and then. Like Mary, he's lonely and relies too much on booze. Later on, we meet Ronnie, Tom’s older brother, a quiet, bereaved man, a world away in experience and aura from his sibling, trying to cope with his wife's death and the emotional assaults of his son. Ronnie's affliction is a chronic inability to connect with people, evidenced in the monosyllabic miserliness of his chat.

But it is Mary’s plight that takes centre stage. Her inclination to drink increases, her tics become more visible and her behaviour erratic and distressed. She's superficially cheerful, but parasitically dependent on her friends, and putting a tragically unconvincing brave face on the awful way her personal life is turning out. When Joe brings home and introduces everyone to his chatty and easygoing girlfriend Katie later in the year, it’s almost like a slap in the face. Leigh shows how Gerri and Tom's patience with Mary is running very low after she become antagonistic with Katie. It’s not that Mary actually thought she and Joe would someday wed, but the realization that even the flirtation is now over has taken one of the few remaining elements of joy from her life.

The scenes featuring Mary are subtle. There are no operatic explosions of fury and anger, just awkward and uncomfortable exchanges. It is not easy to watch her, as she embarrasses herself, reveals too much and drinks herself into a stupor. Even Tom and Gerri have a limits of niceness. But it's to Mary that Leigh keeps returning with sympathy and without inspiring scorn. While not technically the lead character, Mary’s depression and declining state become the main focus, emphasized by the film’s incredibly haunting final shot.
I found “Another Year” an intelligent, deeply compassionate drama. Leigh says something about life that nobody really wants to believe: there is such a thing as "too late." Leigh depicts characters at the point in life when all the bills for all their mistakes are coming due, and he shows how sometimes there's just nothing to be done. Some problems can't be solved. Some emotional pain can't be alleviated, only managed.

To say that the film has no real plot is to miss the point completely. The characters ARE the plot. Another Year” is a film about regret, fear, loneliness and isolation. It's about depression, specifically late-middle-age depression, even though its two most central characters are, paradoxically, a long- and happily-married couple. Ultimately, Tom and Gerri, with their comfortable lives, serve only as the entry point to these much darker themes.
A little warning: the film does move at a very slow pace, taking time to develop characters. Some scenes tend to go on for too long. There are some light and funny moments, but this is by no means a comedy. It may not be everyone’s idea of a good time at the movies but sometimes powerful art is not necessarily comforting, entertaining, or relaxing to watch.