Still walking

8 May

First of all, apologies for not being around here much these past few weeks. I’ve still been watching plenty of films but wanted to take a break from blogging while I was on holiday. A highlight of my trip to the UK was Still Walking by Hirokazu Kore-Eda, one of the brightest Japanese directors. All too often, I find myself dissatisfied with modern portrayals of family life since they’re either  too idyllic or over dramatic and dark yet Japanese films seem especially perceptive and sensitive in its treatment of the same subject. Still Walking is bascially about a family coming together to mark the anniversary of the death of its eldest son who drowned after saving the life of a teenager some years ago. The second son must make his way out to his parents’ house in the suburbs of Tokyo, dreading the reunion which reminds him of his failings as the new leader of the family who must assume his dead brother’s responsibilities. What’s more he has married a widowed single mother with a young son who are not really accepted by his older, conservative parents. The film shows the distances that can divide us from our relatives, our disappointed expectations of one another, the fact that we may have known each other for the longest period of time but that there can still be very little in common, the need of the new generation to move on.

If all this seems a little heavy, it certainly doesn’t come across that way, thanks largely to the wonderful acting by all but especially by the sister’s character whose cheerfulness and quirky humour lightens the tone. The film works on so many different levels with wonderful observations which make us smile yet are also moving. Finally I have to single out the fact that this film especially appeals to me because of its emphasis of preparing food and eating, the fascinating rituals associated with Japanese cuisine and communal meals. It will leave you dreaming of fried corn and roasted white radish.


Winter’s bone

7 Apr

It’s often difficult for me to write about new films I see at the cinema. So engrossed in the story, I don’t focus so much on little details and close analysis. My emotions are almost impossible to put into words and I linger over certain images on the train ride home. This is especially true with Winter’s Bone which I finally watched the other evening but I’ll give it a try.

The second feature from Debra Granik based on the book by Daniel Woodrell, it’s an intense and sombre piece set in Missouri among the white trash community. 17 year old Ree cares for her mentally disturbed mother and younger brother and sister. Times are hard and food is scarce but they manage to survive thanks to her strength of mind and a little outside help. Yet when the local sheriff pulls up to announce that both the house and woodland have been put up by her father for bail and that they will lose their home should he not turn up for his impending court case, Ree has no choice but to go out looking for him. Bleak but never depressing, it’s a film that gets under your skin like the cold wind, gradually becoming more powerful until a scene so terrible that it stays with you for days afterwards. I felt the pain of losing the places you grew up in, of needing at least one stable thing to carry on and the fear of being engulfed by the darkness outside.

This isn’t a film for everyone but it really touched me in a way few others  can.




3 Apr

I had never heard of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan until a couple of years ago when I came across it by chance. Better known for his film “The last days of disco” with Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny, this earlier feaure is a forgotten gem which deserves to be dusted off. On the film cover, the cation underneath the title reads “Doomed. Bourgeois. In Love” . The story begins when West sider Tom Townsend unwittingly gets mixed up with a group of priviledged East siders, the Sally Fowler Rat Pack or SFRP, in full swing of the debutant season. Meeting every night to discuss politics, philosophy and literature, the film could be considered a social satire in the way it gently makes fun of the characters and their opinions. One striking thing about it though is that in spite of the audience’s natural antipathy towards this preppy set, we become charmed by them and gripped by every twist in the story. These are young people of the cusp of a dying generation who know that great changes lie around the corner. You could classify it as just another East Coast talkfest but it never becomes heavy or boring, in spite of the serious topics. It’s amazing how with such a low budget and such young, unknown actors, with many of them in their first major role, Stillman could craft such a beautiful film full of terrific one liners and superby developed characters. It’s a film that really stays with you long after the credits roll and one which seems to improve with each viewing.  My particular favourite part is when the group is walking through the streets of New York in the middle of winter and they ask Tom if he isn’t cold with only a trenchcoat on to which he replies that it’s actually very warm because it has a lining.  Classic.

Fanny and Alexander

25 Mar

It’s difficult to talk of favourites, especially when it comes to Ingmar Bergman films. How can you choose between Summer with Monika, the Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Smiles of a Summer Night or Cries and Whispers to name just a few of the great man’s works? Yet I can’t deny the special place that Fanny and Alexander has in my heart. Last week I watched the full five hour version for the third time and found myself even more captivated than ever by it. My fondness for is based on different factors; growing up almost as an only child with half siblings who lived elsewhere and no other relatives my own age, I still dream of being part of a large family and in particular celebrating Christmas the way the Ekdahl family do. The project was also one of Bergman’s final collaborations with his brilliant cinematographer Sven Nykvist who could capture light like no other. There is a scene towards the end of the first episode where Alexnder is riding on a sledge with a flaming torch casting shadows on his face against the winter landscape and it has to be one of the loveliest I have ever seen. Probably the main reason though why I love it is because of its pure magic which is why I don’t wish to go into too much detail. In a world where so many things can be explained, dissected and objectified, I’m grateful that something manages to escape. This is an exquisitely crafted tapestry full of emotions and light. Simply watch it without any fixed ideas, alone or with friends, perhaps one evening when the wind is blowing strongly over the rooftops or perhaps after the first cold snap has left frost on the branches.


Kitchen stories

19 Mar

From the title alone, it won’t surprise you that Kitchen stories, or Salmer fra kjøkkenet in Norwegian, is a favourite of mine since I love all things culinary. Yet this isn’t a film simply about cooking but more about research, objectivity, loneliness and friendship. We find ourselves in 1950s Sweden where the Hemmets Forskningsinstitut (Home research Institute) is conducting studies into housewives, the equipment they use and the movements around the kitchen. It turns out that the average Swedish housewife goes the equivalent distance of Scandinavia to the Congo simply in one room but what about single men? This is the next task of the HFI; to travel to Norway and find out. Each male researcher will sit on a high chair to observe their subject’s cooking habits, drawing lines on the plans of the kitchen as they move around. They are forbidden to talk or interact with each other so the researchers will sleep in small caravans outside for the duration of the study. Cue a wonderful scene of identical cars pulling green tone caravans, changing from left to right as they cross over the border from Sweden to Norway, like an absurd camping trip.  Yet from the beginning, things are not quite so simple. Isaak, an antisocial Norwegian farmer, immediately regrets having agreed to take part in the survey yet eventually has to leave the front door open for Folke, his reasearcher,  to come and perch in the corner of his kitchen. Folke’s presence clearly makes Isaak uncomfortable and unable to behave normally which raises the question of how objective such a study can be. Can we really understand the behaviour of others without any social interaction? Little by little the two men find out how similar they are and how they need each other; the experiment has to be abandoned and the observer will become the observed.

It’s a wonderfully understated film without much dialogue but plenty of absurd situations and deadpan facial expressions, gently poking fun at the the idea of the documentary and the search for the ideal kitchen. There is no love story but instead friendship between real people who are no longer young which touches us more and more as the story progresses. Even if many of the scenes take place inside, the outdoor shots of snowy landscapes, tall forest trees and pale evening light are no less stunning. Every detail is beautifully researched; the cars, the clothes and the interiors and accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack, including the Delta Rhythm Boys singing about the girls in Småland (watch the video here). A friend also pointed out to me how exquisitely  clear the sounds in the film are; the crunching of chocolate which could be next to your ear, the filling of glasses with bourbon and the blowing out of birthday candles. At the end, it makes us realise that it’s these little moments and details in life that count and make it special.


La Notte

16 Mar

The film opens with scenes of us moving down the metal and glass of a modern high rise building and some shots of the surrounding landscape. Later we learn this is in fact 6os Milan but it could be anywhere with such anonymous architecture. Soon the married couple Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni), a successful writer,  and Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) enter another anonymous structure, a hospital to visit Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki), their dying friend. For a moment they pause by the closed door, not knowing whether to touch each other before deciding against it. Lidia breaks off the visit early and on his way out, Giovanni lets himself be seduced by a disturbed young woman, a kind of predator. This will form the pattern for the rest of the film; from early afternoon until the early hours of the morning, we will see the facade of their relationship crumble and turn to dust.

I noted that the first words the main characters speak to each other come after 19 minutes, along with the first contact of their hands, a prelude to Giovanni’s confession about the girl in the hospital and Lidia’s indifference. Alone and unnoticed at Giovanni’s book launch, Lidia wanders off into the suburbs. Modern life keeps intruding on the characters’ search for meaning and connections; the sounds of aeroplanes and rockets fired into the sky.  The brutality of youths fighting horrifies her; she is unable to understand, disconnected from the concrete environment. She turns to men in the street without talking to them, looks in at someone in an office to find a layer of glass separates them. Later when we see Lidia smile and look genuinely happy for a brief moment, we too are separated from her by the car windscreen, unable to hear her voice. The only warmth comes in the moment when the couple briefly reminisce about life in the old area when the train line was still in use but the impersonality of modern city life has removed that. These are people who know each other too well, who have nothing more to say to each other.

It is the night though that will reveal the true nature of people and hold an unforgiving glass up to thir marriage when they attend a party given by a rich industrialist. Escaping the structures of the city, nature has been transformed into a golf course. I don’t want to reveal too much of what happens afterwards, only that I was struck by the feeling that although Antonioni’s film is full of symbolism, it’s as if the symbols themselves have been used up and are now empty in this postmodern world. There is also the sriking similarity between Jeanne Moreau and Monica Vitti towards the end, both with dark hair, fringed black dresses with spaghetti straps and bare shoulders. Vitti’s character is the only one able to really understand the couple yet she too is used up and tired by them in spite of her youth. The ending is one of the most heartbreaking moments, deepening the sense of betrayal and leaving us in no doubt that the couple have nowhere else to go.


11 Mar

Watching this film always makes me feel that it’s Sunday and the weather is good. I have seen it at least 10 times but find it difficult to put my finger on exactly why I love it so much. The story is basically that of two men setting off for the California wine country to enjoy a last week of freedom before one of them gets married. From the way they talk and interract, it’s clear they have been friends for many years but also that they are pulling in opposite directions. Needless to say, things get complicated and chaos ensues. With another director and cast, the result could have been totally different, becoming simply a buddy movie, sentimental or just a typical rom com. What makes it really work is that the characters are real flawed flesh and blood, played by actors whose faces are not frozen and who are not big stars. The leading men are middle aged with not much to show for their efforts; a failed actor and an aspiring writer with a depression problem.  The story treads the fine line between comedy and tragedy effortlessly, showing that both darkness and light are part of who we are. It’s a film for the senses; the gorgeous light that falls across the hills, the saturated colours that remind me of films from the 70s, the grapes that the characters see and touch, the wonderful jazz soundtrack and most of all the fine food and wine. It makes me long to go on my own road trip to sample the rich flavours of the region, despite the fact that I don’t have a driver’s licence.

My favourite scene is probably where Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen are sat out on the patio late at night and they talk about why they love wine. Madsen’s face is bathed in a golden light as she describes how she thinks about what the weather was like the year the grapes were being picked, the people that were there, how most of them must be dead if it’s an old wine and that wine is alive, changing in taste from day to day and then beginning to slowly decline. It’s a film about wanting to move on but being afraid to move forward  and like the pinot that Giamatti’s character loves so much, it lingers and improves over time with repeated viewings.