Shoplifters

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Shoplifters

Directed by Hirokazu Kore-Eda

Japan, 2018

HOME, 10 January 2019

Shoplifters

This is very moving Japanese film about the need for and importance of family.

It is about a makeshift family of outsiders and petty criminals. When the father sees a stray girl on the street, he takes her home. There they find scars on her arms and decide it is safer not to return her back to her own family.

What is remarkable about the film is that it takes children’s emotions seriously; certainly on a par with that of adults’. There is an understanding that modern Japan, and perhaps modern societies generally are hostile to children, their very structure working to undermine children’s health, happiness and well-being.

Since so many adults are trivial and unserious, immersed in modern technology, congenitally narcissistic and subject to gratuitous rages, it sometimes falls to children to look out for and care for other children. As happens here.

 

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The Favourite

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The Favourite

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

UK, 2018

HOME, 10 January 2019

The Favourite

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

And in this extraordinary film, that is true in spades: this is a strange, queer, wondrous England.

There are many things going for it. First off, it should be said that the director is ideally suited to the task: a perfect choice, in fact. As Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous films have shown, he tends to do things a little strangely anyway. It should be said, also, that the film is (certainly overall and, as for the rest – well, who can know the intimate details of these people’s lives?) fairly true when it comes to the story of Queen Anne, the Duchess of Marlborough and the talented interloper Abigail Masham (the first part of Graham Stewart’s Friendship & Betrayal has a fine account of the drama).

All the principal actors (Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone) are wonderful here, but Weisz especially so. She is the very model of a thrusting cavalier, whether when shooting game out of the sky, scheming with the prime minister or peacock-strutting about court in her thigh-high leather boots. The royal court is indeed strange: the men (those not off fighting the French, any roads) are wearing wigs, make up and tights – as was the custom of the day, . The women are uppermost; consider the courting of Abigail and Masham, and her summary treatment of him on their wedding night. Men are relegated to a minor role. As in chess, so at this court: the queen is the most powerful piece.

Altogether, the film is a strange and a wonderfully queer concoction.

The Passenger

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The Passenger

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

Italy, 1975

HOME, 10 January 2019

The Passenger

Antonioni’s road movie tells us that freedom leads nowhere; the open road is an illusion.

Jack Nicholson is a journalist, working out in Africa. Returning to his hotel after a fruitless spell in the desert, he calls on a fellow guest with whom he has struck up an acquaintance. The guest is dead. On a sudden impulse, perhaps because he is tired of his life and wants adventure, Nicholson decides to take on the guest’s identity. He discovers that he has become an arms dealer, selling guns to revolutionary groups in Africa. He is now no longer a reporter on the events of the world, but an actor in it. Can he change his life?

It is an interesting film, though no great shakes. There are echoes of The Big Clock and The Third Man: Nicholson is hunted and pursued by others. Maria Schneider, his companion on the journey, has a shimmering presence. They first meet in Barcelona, at Gaudi’s unbuilt church, and encounter each other later at another of his buildings (like Nicholson’s fateful decision, all Gaudi’s buildings are follies).

All the time, Nicholson’s taste of freedom is bitter-sweet; there are strands tying him to the earth.

Nureyev: All the World His Stage

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Nureyev: All the World His Stage

Directed by David Morris and Jacqui Morris

UK, 2017

HOME, 30 December 2018
Nureyev: All the World His Stage

This is a dazzling documentary about the Tatar boy who became a brilliant Soviet ballet dancer, then defected to the West.

It covers the early life in the Soviet Union; so we learn that just after the war his family, like many in their community, would eat the bark of the tree, food being so scarce. Then the defection to the West in the early 1960s which led to relationships, both professional and intimately personal it seems (Nureyev did not do anything by halves), with Erik Bruhn and Margot Fonteyn. There came at final curtain call the death from AIDS in 1993.

Nureyev and Fonteyn performed at the White House and on the Ed Sullivan show at the height of the Cold War. Yet it was probably only in the Soviet Union that he – a Tatar boy in a remote province – could have become a ballet dancer, never mind a great one.The Soviet’s Young Pioneers made it possible. It could not have happened in imperial Russia, and certainly not in America.

Richard Avedon photographed Nureyev, we learn here, as he photographed also Maya Plisetskaya of the Bolshoi, a ballerina who chose to stay in the Soviet Union. Nureyev’s company the Kirov, formerly the Maryinsky, was an elegant outfit compared with the rather brutalist Bolshoi.

The impression you are left with at the close of the film is of an extraordinary human being, a languid force of nature (more than two people here compare him to a panther) who achieved fulfilment in life and career.

Indeed, tragic though the circumstances and consequences of his life could be – he took on poverty, communist oppression, AIDS… – he resisted always. He took it all in his rapacious stride and to see him leap, as you do in the footage here, is a wondrous sight. It must have seemed near-miraculous watching live, like watching the great Tommy Lawton rise to head the ball (He reminded us there / Of his strength in the air).

 

An Elephant Sitting Still

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An Elephant Sitting Still

Directed by Hu Bo

China, 2018

HOME, 27 December 2018
An Elephant Sitting Still

So this is what China looks like for those without Party connections or a special talent.

The main characters are teenagers who go to a mediocre school and come into contact with small-fry gangsters. The school will equip them to go into a dead-end job (working as a street vendor, one boy is told), returning home each day to a sparsely furnished flat in a multi-storey block. As for upward social mobility, perhaps the prospect of studying abroad, that is impossible to conceive of for these young people.

Nothing good happens here – there is a suicide and, throughout the whole of the three and a half hours (it is a long film, though elegant on the eye), an endemic fatalism (quite a few people say: ‘It has always been, and will always be, like this’). You think sometimes of Sartre’s old novel Nausea: that same vibe of absurdity and nihilism is here as well, but it is wedded to a helplessness that undoubtedly derives from the society itself. What is different as well is that this society bridges two worlds (each somehow hollowed out, not wholly real): one carbon-based and physical; another cyber and digital. And these young people are entangled, caught in both: the social networks contain deadly webs.

Mug

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Mug

Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska

Poland, 2018

HOME, 27 December 2018
Mug

At Christmas dinner, what with Jacek’s (a role played by the excellent Mateusz Kosciukiewicz) family sat around the sumptuously adorned table, there is an empty chair.

The priest, on this evening a guest, explains that this chair is reserved for Christ – or for any stranger, an unknown other – bearing in mind Jesus’s words that what you do for even the least human being, you do for Him.

Now we come to the great change, a trauma of transformation. Jacek is a construction worker, working as part of a crew engaged in building an immense statue of Christ, when he has an accident. He survives, just about – it is a miracle! – but is horribly disfigured and so is given a ‘face transplant’. To others – to friends and family, the young woman he is engaged to marry – his queer resurrection is unwelcome. His new face means that he has become a stranger and one, moreover, who cannot speak or eat properly.

We get to see how Christian, how truly compassionate and understanding, the people in this community are. Do their values (or simply their aesthetic sense or their sense of security and comfort) hold up when tested?

I very much enjoyed this film fiercely intelligent, morally probing, well-crafted film – a ‘Christ Incognito’ film along the lines of Babette’s Feast.

Splendid festive fare.

Winter Sleep

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Winter Sleep

Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Turkey, 2014

HOME, 29 December 2018
Winter Sleep

This is an enormously engrossing drama, with distinct echoes of Chekhov.

The main character is Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a wealthy landowner who fancies himself a writer. He lives unhappily with his wife and sister in a remote hotel, which he runs. There they engage in a series of excoriating conversations where they cut chunks of flesh out of each other: only for fun, mind, to while away the time.

There is no solace at home and no compassion shown, either, towards the poor tenant family (one among them an Imam) facing eviction for failing to pay their rent. Yet nothing – and certainly no crass offer of charity – can heal the rift between rich and poor. That is what Ceylon seems to be saying, anyway, in the most powerful scene in the film: a scene that almost scorches your flesh. The wound is too deep, too contaminated, has festered too long. (In these unremitting scenes you think of The Tree of Wooden Clogs – they are that powerful.)

It possesses many memorable moments, this film, as for example when a village schoolteacher asks how a society can maintain its values once the foundation of those values (whether it be Islam or Christianity) has been denied, or apparently superseded. It is a fair question, one which often goes by the moniker of the Böckenförde dilemma.

This film is a masterpiece. It is so direct and honest and clear-eyed. Ceylan has such a keen, intelligent eye for life. He has an appetite for people, an interest and curiosity about human beings, that is serious and (I hope, just a little anyway) ennobling.

Polina

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Polina

Directed by Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj

France, 2016

HOME, 27 December 2018

Polina

This film charts an artist’s journey.

Polina goes to ballet school as a very young girl. This is in Georgia, an Eastern European country betwixt Russia and Western Europe. She loves to dance and her parents make sacrifices to ensure she gets the best training. She secures a place at the Bolshoi, but studies there only briefly, leaving to take up modern dance in France.

There she meets a choreographer (played by Juliette Binoche: very French, very European) who tells her that dance is all about longing. You know then that Binoche’s character is a stand-in for Pina Bausch (mind, one cannot imagine Binoche chain-smoking) because that is something that Bausch had said somewhere. Anyway, Binoche’s remark strikes home, particularly when Polina’s career flounders. She moves from France to Germany to Belgium, eking out a demi-mode existence while trying to evade her parents. They are concerned about her and think she has thrown her life away.

Polina’s problem, we are led to understand, is to weld together the discipline of Russian ballet – that magnificent tradition – with the freedom afforded her by modern European dance (which has what going for it, exactly?). And to create out of that hybrid moment – the moment is all, as Balanchine said, the present performance, what happens now, is paramount – something true and real.

It all comes together in the end, as you would expect.

An entertaining spree, this film, but a bit simple with regard to the polarity Russia / Europe. One of those films that looks like it has been funded by Creative Europe. There is a sly touch of promotion, social engineering and (dare one say?) propaganda in the way Europe is depicted.

It’s a Wonderful Life

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It’s a Wonderful Life

Directed by Frank Capra

USA, 1948

HOME, 23 December 2018
It’s a Wonderful Life

Do I have anything new to say about this classic, much commented upon Christmas film?

Well, not really, though I have always been intrigued by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s last words. As he lay upon his death bed, the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century is supposed to have said: ‘Tell them I have had a wonderful life.’ Was he alluding to this film? We know that he was a big movie fan – he regularly went to see the latest flicks when they were showing in the Picture Palaces of his day – and it is entirely possible that he was thinking of Frank Capra’s film when he uttered those final words.

To Wittgenstein, Bedford Falls would likely have represented a Lebensform, a form of life, a society, where the life of each and every person is interconnected. An ideal community. All souls bring something special to the party; take away one soul (say, a certain George Bailey) and the life of all others is somehow diminished, even irrevocably changed. And perhaps the philosopher felt a particular aversion to Potter, the avaricious capitalist (recall that as a young man Wittgenstein gave up his vast fortune and took a job as a schoolteacher in a small Austrian village), and a corresponding regard and admiration for the self-sacrificing George Bailey. And as for the Christian message, bear in mind that Tolstoy’s version of the Gospels was one of Wittgenstein’s favourite books.

Do you want to hear God laugh? Tell him your plans as George Bailey does here…

Khrustalyov, My Car!

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Khrustalyov, My Car!

Directed by Aleksey German

Russia, 1998

HOME, 22 December 2018

Khrustalyov, My Car!

Like a Wacky Races car, the film seems to always be on the verge of veering out of control, but it never quite gets there.

Set in the Soviet Union in the early 1950s, just prior to the death of Stalin, it follows the fortunes of a doctor, or perhaps his double (a KGB agent acting as the doctor while he has been taken away and interrogated). More than that, I cannot say. So many strange events happen – social order, if it can be so described, is rudimentary at best – that it is easy to become confused. And though I say these events are ‘strange’, bear in mind that this is Stalinist Russia, so who is to say that it is not realistic and accurate?

The film is chaotic and crazy, at times brutal (not least in its depiction of an explicit male rape scene), abounding in a sort of scattergun energy. That much can be said. I would place it in the same absurdist Russian tradition as Gogol, Kharms and Bulgakov. And that is pretty good company IMHO.

Anyway, it’s an extraordinary achievement.