2 Films You Might have Missed in 2020

After a year in which the headless chickens at Warner Bros declared, yawn, that cinema was dead, again, it’s easy to have missed the fact that a number of films were in fact released in the year just gone, albeit in a somewhat truncated manner. Two of which are very much worth the effort of chasing down.

Bacurau won the Jury prize at Cannes in 2019 and is the third feature from Brazil’s Kleber Mendonça Filho, which he co-directs with his long time art director Juliano Dornelles. Set in a dystopian near future, Bacurau is a mythical town in the Brazilian outback whose inhabitants are being slowly closed in on. 

Their water supply has been cut off, their town is inexplicably disappearing from Google maps, or whatever its futuristic equivalent is, and there are a group of tourists whose safari trip seems to revolve around taking out the town’s inhabitants, as if they all existed in some sort of actualised video game.

At Home, In the Company of Strangers.

Bacurau begins in malevolent sci-fi mode before morphing into spaghetti western territory via Mad Max. As such, it’s a companion piece to At Home In the Company of StrangersNikita Mikhalkov’s impressive debut, from1974. It shares that film’s refusal to be bound by any genre straight jacket, and is wilfully open to any number of interpretations. So that its political resonances are suggested rather than declaimed. The result is an impressively atmospheric trip into a heart of darkness that says little about the future and much, alas, about the present of the country in which it is set.

The Vast of Night is a much less substantial affair, but is well worth a look nonetheless. The feature debut of Andrew Patterson, who also wrote and produced it under the pseudonym James Montague, the film was actual shot in 2016. But it was picked up by Amazon last year after turning many a head at Edinburgh and Toronto, and was duly released in the summer of 2020. 

It’s an unabashed homage to 1950’s sci-fi B movies and is presented as an apparent episode of a would-be Twilight Zone series. What elevates the film is the infectious confidence with which it is directed. 

And there’s absolutely no way we can persuade you to consider a sequel…?

I’m sure if I sat sown and thought about it for 20 minutes, I could probably work out quite how he manages to match-cut that tracking shot that seems to glide all the way into the basketball game and then effortlessly back out again and into the night. But I’d rather just luxuriate in its brash exuberance. Part of the joy of seeing magic is knowing that it’s only a trick but being for the life of you incapable of working out exactly how it was that the trick was done.

Clearly made for thruppence ha’penny, thanks to its bravura direction The Vast of Night looks like a million dollars and more, and is the most impressive calling card since Donny Darko, if that’s not too hubristic an appellation to lay on it. And both films, by the by, come in at a crisp 90 minutes. Would that some of their more seasoned, ahem, superiors would follow their lead.

You can see the trailer for Bacurau below. 

And for The Vast of Night below.

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“When All is Ruin Once Again”; impressionistic, elusive and impressive.

The filmic essay is a very particular breed. Part of this the golden age of television that we’re all luxuriating in has been the plethora of extraordinary documentaries that the small screen now has to offer. Most conspicuously with BBC4’s Storyville strand, reviewed by me earlier here. But the filmic essay is something else entirely.

Adam Curtis, reviewed by me earlier here, is the best example currently of someone producing this very specific type of documentary. There are plenty of individuals who attack a subject and pursue a particular polemic in a consciously objective manner. But an essay is an active attempt to try to understand something. 

Adam Curtis’ very personal meditation on Afghanistan.

It’s open and questioning where more conventional documentaries are crusading and confrontational. And When All is Ruin Once Again is a confident and original addition to its ranks.

The film is set in Gort, on the border of Clare and Galway in the west of Ireland, and is framed by the opening of a section of the motorway between Gort and Crusheen, in 2010. But its completion is promptly aborted as what was then the recession took hold. And it wasn’t until 2017 that it eventually came to be completed. 

The husband and wife team of Keith Walsh and Jill Beardsworth moved to Gort in 2010 and made the film over the following seven years. Documenting the changes that the country, and especially the West has undergone, as we moved effectively from the 19thcentury into the 21stover a period of little more than twenty years. And few things encapsulate that change as pertinently as the transformation rendered by the construction of a motorway.

But the film refrains from lazily contrasting a noble if austere past sullied by the enforced transition to a crass, materialistic future. In which an Irish identity has been sacrificed on the altar of globalization. What you get instead is a thoughtful and gentle portrait of one generation quietly making way for the necessary arrival of the next.

For the most part, the film avoids the sort of hectoring you might have feared given the subject matter. It does take one misstep. It ends with a voice over issuing a bog standard warning of the imminent environmental catastrophe that unchecked global warming presents. Which is a shame. Because that’s exactly that kind of tedious didacticism that the rest of the film so impressively avoids. 

Apart from which, When All is Ruin Once Again is a refreshingly subtle and quietly personal portrait of a world in transition. Which is neither good nor bad. It simply is, and ever thus will it be.

You can and should see it on the RTE Player. And you can see the trailer for When All is Ruin Once Again below (though I should point out, a tad disappointingly if inevitably, it’s a pretty misleading trailer. The actual film is, happily, much less didactic than the trailer implies.)

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“A Special Day”, “ Padre Padrone” and the 1977 Cannes Film Festival

Una Giornata Particolare

The Palme d’Or for Best Film at Cannes in 1977 was fought out between two relatively low-key Italian films, Una Giornata Particolare and Padre Padrone. So it was up to that year’s jury head, the revered Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini, to reach a decision. His verdict proved controversial on two counts. 

Una Giornata Particolare, clumsily translated as A Special Day (though I can’t, I have to confess, think of an improvement), is set on May 6th, 1938 and is particolare for a number of reasons. It was on this day that the Führer arrived in Rome from Nazi Germany to pay an official state visit to his good friend and fellow dictator Mussolini.

The drama unfolds over a single day and takes place entirely in a now empty block of flats, as practically all the residents have flocked to pay tribute to the visiting dignitaries. The only two people left are Sophia Loren, the down-trodden, stay at home mother of six, and Marcello Mastroianni, an urbane and secretly gay radio announcer.

Loren and Mastroianni as they are more traditionally imagined.

It’s particolare for him, because this is the day that he, like so many other gay men in 30s Rome, is due to be exiled to the island of Sardinia. That being the not quite final solution employed by the perennially inept fascists that Italy laboured under. And it’s particolare for her, in that she ends up spending it almost entirely in his company.

Rather like Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, if in a somewhat less operatic manner, what’s so engaging about Ettore Scola’s film is the way he transforms what could have been a drab, kitchen sink drama and elevates it into something else entirely. Rather than undermine the drama, the presence of Italy’s two most glamorous movie stars, playing gloriously against type, lifts the film from what could have been a very grim affair. As does the way the film is shot and so carefully choreographed. The result is not at all what you’d expect given the subject matter. And is all the more moving thereafter.

Padre Padrone.

Padre Padrone, by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, offers a different kind of grim. Set in what feels like another century but is in fact the remote rural mountains of Sardinia in the 1950s, it’s about the effective imprisonment of the young Gavino, who is bound by the centuries-old tradition that he serve his father on the barren family farm. And his determination to somehow escape, which he does ultimately through the portal of education.

But it too is moulded into a surprising form. It begins and ends as if it were a documentary, which, far from giving you any sense of actuality, merely serves to heighten the sense of artifice. As does the fact that, once we embark on the film proper, we are constantly privy to the inner thoughts of the different characters. Including, even, the farm animals that they come into contact with.

One of the great, iconic scenes in Italian cinema, Rossellini’s Rome, Open City.

That regular intrusion of those voice overs, as we eavesdrop on what they are thinking, is used by the Taviani brothers to consciously distance the viewer from what feels otherwise like an intimate portrait of real people living their actual lives. 

You can see what a film maker like Rossellini would have been drawn to in each of these two films. But it’s equally obvious how far film had moved since his hey day, even with films that were dealing with exactly the kinds of topics that he had once been drawn to.

Ultimately, it seems that the presence of two titans like Loren and Mastroianni, and those elaborately orchestrated shots of Scola’s, proved too much for him, and he campaigned vigorously for Padre Padrone, which duly took the prize. The controversy that followed was twofold.

Mastroianni and Scola teamed up again for what is one of the very few films that gets Naples.

On the one hand, the other members of the jury let it be known that they had very much not appreciated his 12-Angry-Men like determination to convert them to his choice – if indeed that waswhat actually happened. And on the other, rather more surprisingly, the Festival committee announced that they too were unhappy with the decision. Their reason though was on the grounds that Padre Padrone was in fact a made for television “film”, and Cannes was a celebration of cinema with a capital C.

They rang Rossellini up a few weeks later to smooth things over, and to invite him on to the following year’s jury. But a week after he returned to Rome, he died of a heart attack.

Truth be told, watching them both today, it’s difficult to say which of the two is the better film. They are both, in their very different ways, wonderful. But ultimately, you would have to side with the rest of the jury. There’s a classicism and balance to Una Giornata Particolare and a universality to its themes which, necessarily, isn’t there for the very particular and specifically local story that Padre Padrone tells.

You can see the trailer for A Special Day here

And the trailer to Padre Padrone here

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“Annihilation” and the demise of British film criticism

Annihilation.

Aside from the aborted first attempt at an Irish Film Board in the 1980s, for most of the 20thcentury there was no indigenous film industry in Ireland. So when the Film Board was re-established in 1992, and the economy finally began to take off, the few films that started to get made here were greeted by everyone as miraculous events akin to the moving statues that had preceded them the decade before. 

This was as true of Irish audiences as it was of the film critics who served them. Which was perfectly understandable. But that didn’t make it any less disappointing. Films like Words Upon the Windowpane, 1994, Circle of Friends, ‘95, The Sun, the Moon and the Stars, ‘96, The Last of the High Kings ’96, The Nephew, ’98 and Ordinary Decent Criminal, 2000, were all joyously celebrated and applauded when they should have been quietly lamented and apologised for.

A poster as meticulously crafted as the script they used.

For one thing, it’s hopelessly patronising to the film makers. We don’t laud Dubliners, the Pogues or Brian Friel because they’re Irish, but because they’re good. To encourage audiences to see a film or watch a television series just because it’s Irish is mortifying. It’s criticism sunk by a sense of inferiority, anchored by a cripplingly chipped shoulder. It is, in short, unforgivably parochial.

Which was why, in days gone by, we turned to Britain when we wanted any serous cultural criticism. When The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, The Times or The Sunday Times reviewed a British film they judged it on its own merit. 

That contrast in innate cultural confidence was all the more striking in the decade that saw Trainspotting and Four Weddings at the cinema, Britpop on the airways and the YBAs take the global art market by storm.

Trainspotting: the British were coming.

But since the turn of the century, the view from across the Irish Sea is of a very different Britain. It’s suddenly become uncharacteristically provincial and insular. Smaller and less interesting. 

That loss of confidence has recently become visible in its film criticism. Dispiritingly, British films have of late been handled by the film critics over there with the same kind of kid gloves that we used to handle our own films with. Annihilation being a case in point.

Annihilation (2018) is Alex Garland’s follow up to Ex Machina, his well–received 2014 screen debut. In the triumphantly positive review that he gave it in The Telegraph here, Tim Robey descried Annihilation as being “exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure”. Whilst Benjamin Lee, in the 4 star review he gave it in the Guardian here, praised it for being “admirably uncompromising… and wonderfully unknowable.”

Ex Machina.

Really. Imagine a group of first year film students after one too many joints on a picnic in Central Park. And they suddenly decide, inevitably, that what they absolutely have to do is to shoot a film on one of their phones, right now! So they stitch together a script for what they think will be an hilarious B movie pastiche, a sort of Ghostbusters meets Alien but with 5, all female protagonists, who are all, get this, scientists!! 

But once they get back to their dorm to edit what they’ve shot, they completely forget that the whole thing was meant to have been a joke, and they all start taking the whole thing terribly seriously. This, alas, is the result.

Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta; happier times. c/o wallup.net

Apart from anything else, it all looks and sounds so unremittingly cheap. What on earth can they have spent the $55m budget on? The effects look like they were done on an earlier version of the phone you replaced your current one with. And the, ahem, science that the misfortunate actresses are asked to spout is of the sort that would once have been found on the back of a matchbox. 

It’s hard to know what’s more disappointing, the film itself or the reviews that it received. Still, no need to write Garland completely off quite yet. Six episodes into Devs, his BBC/Hulu TV series suggest something of a return to form. He just needs to stick to conventional thrillers, and leave the big science to actual scientists. 

You can see the trailer for Annihilation here

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Parasite; mmnah

Parasite.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Parasite, the seventh film from South Korean film maker Bong Joon-ho. And, had it arrived under the radar, as it were, much as his fourth film, Mother, did in 2009, then very probably it could have been forgiven its many glaring inconsistencies.

Sure, it’s about half an hour too long. And, like Mother (not to be confused with Darren Aronofsky’s execrable Mother!, with an exclamation mark, reviewed by me earlier here), it can’t make up its mind whether it’s a dark comedy, a creepy thriller, or a social satire – cant it be all three, you ask? On which, more anon.

Depardieu in Les Valseuses.

And sure, it’s the sort of film that Bertrand Blier was making eons ago, but with much more verve and brio. Films like Les Valseuses (limply translated as Going Places) from 1974, Buffet froid from ’79 and Tenue de soirée from ’86. All of which starred Gérard Depardieu in all his pomp, and which all displayed, not to put too fine a point on it, considerably more balls.

But it didn’t. Parasite arrived garlanded, anointed and verily festooned, blazing a trail of un-checked praise.

That it should have won the Academy award for Best Film is very much par for the course. It’s exactly the sort of skin deep, un-demanding social satire that the Academy likes to pat itself on the back for applauding. What’s much more surprising is that they should have given the nod to the genuinely edgy Moonlight (reviewed by me here) three years previously.

Tim Robbins in The Player.

But it’s baffling that the grown ups at Cannes should have been equally wowed, albeit in a particularly weak year. Mind you, they gave the Palme d’Or to The Square in 2017, which was similarly unfocused.

So, what’s wrong with being a dark comedy, a creepy thriller, and a social satire? Well, nothing. It can be done, as with Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (’82), David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (‘90) and Twin Peaks (’92- present) and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (‘73) and The Player (‘92). All of which of course were completely overlooked by the Academy. 

You just need to answer the three fundamental questions that all stories must answer; whose story is it? What do they want? And what’s stopping them?

The Long Goodbye,

So whose story is being told in Parasite? To begin with, it’s the son’s. Then, 20 minutes in, it switches to his sister. Then his father. Then it’s a mix of all four, their mother now joining them. Before finally reverting to the son once more. This does not produce a whimsical mixing of genres and a delightful flitting hither and thither. It’s all just a bit of a mess.

If we don’t know whose story it is, we can’t know what they want, and what therefore is stopping them from getting it. So we’ve nobody to root for, and there’s no way for us to get emotionally engaged, so there’s nothing at stake. This is not some optional extra. It’s the very foundation upon which all stories are built.

Laura Palmer, Twin Peaks.

Not that any of this should really have come as a surprise. After all, before making Mother, Boon hooked up with Michel Gondry and Leos Carax, two of the most inconsequential and insubstantial film makers to have ever come out of France, to make Tokyo! (08) together.

Let’s hope nobody introduces poor Boon to Terrence Malick and the aforementioned Aronofsky, America’s answer to messers Gondry and Carax. Perish the thought.

You can see the trailer for Parasite here.

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