TENET (spoiler-free review)


2020

Director: Christopher Nolan

Starring: John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Caine, Clémence Poésy, Fiona Dourif, Himesh Patel

Words – Daniel McMonagle

2020 has been one of the cruellest years for cinema on record. Unlike many films rescheduled, shelved and sold off to streaming services, the latest feature from Christopher Nolan is too big and expensive to go straight into the digital land of video on demand. With the ongoing pandemic, Tenet has been seen as the film to save the reopening of cinemas…

Fortunately, Tenet exceeds expectations and delivers everything audiences could want from a film of this magnitude. Returning collaborators such as cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and production designer Nathan Crowley have crafted what looks and sounds like the most “Nolan” film experience yet. With bombastic scenes running back and forth, we follow the unnamed protagonist played very charismatically by John David Washington, accompanied by Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki, as they try to prevent the start of World War 3 by a Russian Oligarch played with absolute venom by Kenneth Brannagh.

Time has always been one of the principle themes of Nolan’s films. With Tenet, he explores the concept of time running back and forth on itself as the protagonist is thrust into a world where the future can communicate with the past. Like a lot of key time travel plots, the characters get to explore past events they previously experienced. Reverse footage never looked so exciting than it does here as explosions invert and bullets fly back whilst character motivations and plot twists are unveiled in a non-linear fashion due to the nature of time travel.

Nolan’s films have often been criticised for their heavy reliance on exposition. However, Tenet is actually less exposition-heavy than its closest relative film Inception. We are thrust into events along with the characters and are forced to pick things up as the plot charges along. Razor sharp editing and a propulsive score by Ludwig Goransson ensure a relentlessly up-tempo pace.

Nolan has always expressed an interest in the Bond movies, and we have previously seen hints of this with Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy. Tenet is as close to a Nolan ‘Bond movie’ as we’re ever likely to get, he has taken everything that’s great about James Bond such as globetrotting exotic locations, high stakes plotting and action scenes and given them a science fiction twist. The film is set against the backdrop of some truly outstanding scenery that IMAX takes maximum advantage of. As far as the action scenes play out, this is Nolan’s best work yet. Tenet is full of shoot outs, chases and espionage, all helped by a complete reliance on practical effects.

On first viewing, the plot may seem convoluted and, at times, difficult to follow. However, Tenet is undoubtedly the best movie-going experience of the year that demands multiple viewings.

 

 

 


 

 

Candyman (1992)

1992

Director: Bernard Rose

Starring: Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley, Kasi Lemmons, Vanessa Williams, DeJuan Guy, Marianna Elliott, Ted Raimi, Ria Pavia

Words – Oliver Innocent

Touted as the heir to the throne of Stephen King, Liverpool-born horror novelist Clive Barker came to prominence in the mid-1980s with his short story collections, Books of Blood. These stories were both lyrical and explicit, frequently blurring the lines between the erotic and the horrific.

This predilection for the merging of pleasure and pain would reach its apotheosis in Barker’s directorial debut, Hellraiser (1987), based on his own novella The Hellbound Heart. There had been film adaptations of Barker’s work before such as the B-monster-movie romp, Rawhead Rex (1986), however Hellraiser marked a turning point. Bloody, sexy and iconic, Hellraiser opened the floodgates.
While Hellraiser metamorphosed into a never-ending franchise juggernaut, Barker returned to directing duties with the misunderstood commercial and critical failure, Nightbreed (1990). Then came Candyman.

Adapted and directed by Bernard Rose, Candyman – based on Clive Barker’s The Forbidden from Books of Blood – retains that unmistakable Barker feel at the same time expanding into new territories.
The most notable change from the source material is the transposing of the setting from Liverpool to the Chicago housing project Cabrini-Green. Rather than a mere cosmetic change, this shifts the story’s focus entirely. Where The Forbidden looked at the British class system, Candyman examines the divide between black and white America.

The legend goes that in the late 19th century the titular ‘Candyman’, an artist and son of a slave, fell in love with a landowner’s daughter he was hired to paint, whereafter she became pregnant. The furious landowner instigated a lynch mob who ran him down, sawed off his arm and smeared him with honey so he would be swarmed by bees, before burning him on a pyre. His ashes were scattered over the site where the Chicago housing project would later be built.

Over the years an urban legend developed surrounding the hook-handed ghost of the Candyman; if you say his name five times in front of a mirror, he will appear behind you before splitting you from groin to gullet. The film follows Helen, a university student studying the legend, as she gets drawn deeper into the world of the Candyman more than she could have ever imagined.

Candyman captured the zeitgeist of the early 1990s with its examination of the dichotomy between black and white America.
This was a time when hip hop was rapidly gaining both popularity and credibility – artists like Public Enemy and Ice Cube rapped about ghetto life, racism, and the political and social issues affecting African Americans at the time. These same issues were portrayed in cinema in films such as 1989’s Do the Right Thing and 1991’s Boyz n the Hood. Horror often addresses the fears, anxieties and issues of the time so it’s no surprise a film like Candyman emerged a year after Boyz n the Hood, looking at race relations through the lens of horror. What is surprising (or unfortunately for many, not so), is how relevant Candyman still is.

With its depiction of a black man lynched by a white mob, housing projects and gang violence, Candyman feels more prescient than ever amidst the Black Lives Matter protest movement. It almost seems fitting (though for reasons which stem from tragic incidents) that Candyman is due to return in a “spiritual sequel” to the original film.
It’s even more pertinent that the upcoming sequel has been developed by a black female director, Nia DaCosta, and black filmmaker Jordan Peele whose previous horror thrillers, Get Out and Us, also comment on race, class and identity.
Along with this new blood, some of the original cast are due to return including the original Candyman himself, Tony Todd. Appearing in numerous genre films before and after, it’s Candyman that remains Todd’s defining role. He ensured the character would go on to become a horror icon with his commanding presence, eloquent speeches and deep baritone voice. The hook for a hand and chest full of bees didn’t hurt either.

The Candyman could have easily become a Blaxploitation monster single-mindedly haunting a white woman. Todd elevates the Candyman above this. He’s a tragic, romantic figure with a yearning for living on as a legend because his own life was forcibly taken from him. His desire to be with Helen because he believes she is the reincarnation of the love he lost his life for transcends the stereotype of the black monster’s lust for a white woman.

Virginia Madsen’s Helen similarly differs to the standard horror heroine. She’s a married graduate student focused on her studies, rather than the usual single naive ‘final girl’ or the party loving horny teen. This makes her descent even more tragic as the Candyman seeks to take everything from her so she can be with him forever. Madsen really shows her range with this performance, from the confident, hard-working Helen at the film’s outset to the driven to hysteria Helen of the final act.

Helen’s investigation into the legend highlights another important aspect of the film; it doesn’t forget to be scary. The examination of race relations adds to the horror rather than distracting from it, something that could have easily happened had the adaptation fell into less confident hands.
Writer-director Bernard Rose ensures there’s an uncomfortable tension as Helen explores the housing project and encounters a group who think she’s a cop – this culminates in a harrowing encounter in a toilet where she’s beaten up by a gang of men – it’s the flipside to Candyman’s encounter with the white lynch mob. Here it is Helen, a white middle-class woman, who is the outsider.
The supernatural element of the legend is also expertly handled. A riff on the Bloody Mary legend, the drawn out saying of Candyman into a mirror, punctuated by his sudden appearance is a truly terrifying image, amplified by Philip Glass’s iconic, haunting score.
Much like the legend of the Candyman himself, the story of the film has grown in the years that have followed, now feeling more relevant than ever before.

 


 

Cinema Paradiso


1988

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore

Starring: Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, Jacques Perrin, Antonella Attili, Pupella Maggio, Enzo Cannavale, Isa Danieli, Leo Gullotta, Agnese Nano, Leopoldo Trieste

Words – Christian Abbott

“The old movie business is just a memory”, a line which summates so much feeling through nostalgia, perfectly capturing the essence of this film. The old movie business may indeed just be a memory now, but it is here that its power lives on, and its legacy and impact will never be forgotten.

Released over three decades ago, cinema has changed profoundly since this time, but the power of the cinematic remains true.
A story following the life of a now renowned filmmaker, Toto, as a message to return to his hometown sparks the memories of his upbringing both in and around his beloved Cinema Paradiso. It’s a timeless tale of childish naivete and young love, between him and cinema. It’s a perfect foundation to explore cinema’s glittering lure.

There is something uniquely wonderful about films that capture this unique love of cinema. Perhaps, this is because it is a rare display of genuine appreciation for the art form of the cinema itself, or, more likely, it is because those that appreciate film with the same youthful infatuation that Toto has for the projection room, sometimes need nothing more than two hours of cinematic self-indulgence.

From writer and director Giuseppe Tornatore, it is clear this was crafted by a loving hand; there is scene after scene of people gathering, laughing, cheering, and celebrating the sheer potential of the big screen. People brought together into a dark room to share in its emotions, cinema is a truly unique experience and this champions it like no other.

There are consistent low-angle shots of Toto, as he is transfixed by the screen; the projectors beam of light above him, Tornatore creates a mythic feeling. In conjunction, Ennio Morricone provided an angelic score, a soundtrack to cinema itself, and one of his absolute finest pieces in a career of consistent greats.

There is a lesson Toto learns in his young life, that sometimes you need to step away from something to truly appreciate it, as hard as that may be. We may all take the cinema for granted, after all, it has always been there and through works like this, it always will be. But like Toto, when you take a step back things become clear, and through his eyes, through the lens of Tornatore, we see that cinema should never be taken for granted, because its effects both on the personal and on the public can never be fully understood, though Cinema Paradiso is the best understanding of why we will always go to the cinema.

★★★★★

 

 

 


 

 

Seven Samurai

1954

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Yukiko Shimazaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Daisuke Katô, Isao Kimura, Minoru Chiaki, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Kosugi, Bokuzen Hidari, Yoshio Inaba

Words – Christian Abbott

All great films can be traced back to other works of art from decades past. The cynical would say that nothing is original anymore, but what it truly shows is that art, and especially cinema, is a never ending cycle of inspiration and reinterpretation. Often, this comes at the detriment to the previous work, as it slowly becomes overshadowed by the piece that exists because of it.
Arguably, one of the most obvious examples of this is when it comes to The Magnificent Seven (1960). Almost everybody knows of this film and understands its cultural impact, but some may not realise what inspired it. To take nothing away from John Sturges’ classic re-imagining, one shouldn’t forget the original, as its impact reaches far beyond its Hollywood remake – it defined and helped create genre-fiction as we know it today.

Released in 1954 by legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai was the result of years of research and heavyweight talent coming together. The result was one of cinema’s most impressive and enduring ensemble casts, and a cinematic eye that is still sharper than most.

An old samurai in need of work is hired by a town to protect them against a series of bandits. To do this, he enlists 6 more samurai’s to protect and supply the town with aid. The sequence of events is a familiar one to modern audiences, but it is told so expertly, with genuine ingenuity and cinematic innovation that it still can hold its own against any modern action blockbuster.
From the initial hire, through building a team, holding the bandits back piece by piece and ultimately leading to a massive battle still excites now. Sometimes you need nothing more than a classic tale of redemption and honour; and this is that film.

Kurosawa’s editing and Asakazu Nakai’s cinematography have been written about at length and their impact can be felt across cinema. But understanding it is one thing, to see it yourself is another. The sweeping shots, silhouetted framing and persistent, gilding changes from wide and close-up captivate in a way only cinema achieves.

Seven Samurai has good company in Kurosawa’s canon for reinterpretation. The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Yojimbo (1961) were both famously re-worked into Star Wars (1977) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964), respectively. Great work inspires future great artists, which in turn inspire more.
Today, the words remake and reboot feel tainted by consistent failure – the mere mention of a remake can turn audiences away and actively annoy others for perceived disrespect to the original work.
Yet, the legacy and history of Seven Samurai stands as a testament to its merits. Without it, so much of cinema we enjoy and define ourselves by wouldn’t exist. So many great filmmakers wouldn’t have seen 7 samurai warriors protect a small village, inspiring them to create stories that will inspire us.

This is truly a milestone in cinema and should never be side-lined or forgotten. Kurosawa’s filmography is a catalogue of greats, but Seven Samurai stands alone. For a reminder of why cinema is great – watch Seven Samurai.

 

 

 


 

 

Parasite

Director: Bong Joon-ho

Starring: Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo, Woo-sik Choi, Park So-dam, Jeong-eun Lee, Hye-jin Jang, Ji-so Jung

Words – Rhiannon Topham

Rarely does a film defy all cinematic conventions and pull it off flawlessly. Even more rare is for a film to please so many different genres, yet seem almost completely genre-less.
There is so much to say about Parasite, none of which should be discussed openly in a one-way format such as this: it is highly recommended going into this film without any prior knowledge of what it is or where it will go. So how to go about describing this artistic feat, aside from the obvious statements that it is undeniably Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece, and easily one of the best films in decades?

Let’s start with painting as simple a picture as possible. Whereas Bong’s previous films, the irreverent Okja and dystopian future incision Snowpiercer, focussed on alternative realities, the social skewering in Parasite is distinctly tangible.
The Kim family live in a small semi-basement and all struggle to hold down employment. They rush around their squalid home trying to connect to free WiFi and leave their windows open when the fumigators spray the streets to try and clear the stink-bugs moving in.

One day, the Kims are visited by son Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk, who gifts them a mysterious rock which is said to bring wealth to those who possess it. When Min-hyuk suggests Kim-woo pretend to be a university student and take over his job tutoring the daughter of the wealthy Park family, what follows is an opportunistic snowballing plot devised by the Kims which is equal parts genius and dangerous, rational and absurd.
By exploiting the credulous Park matriarch, using a creative variety of props from underpants to peaches, the Kims find a way for each of them to secure work within the concrete walls of the Park’s modernist mansion, a risky endeavour which involves usurping the family’s loyal housekeeper.

After all of the Kim clan have secured their posts in the Park home, the latter depart for a camping trip to celebrate their son’s birthday. While they’re away, the Kim’s spend the night in the luxury of their employers’ home, enjoying the kind of food and beverages they would seldom have access to back in their semi-basement. This marks the transition into the film’s second act; the Kim’s gestation period has been successful, remarkably so, and the rug is about to get violently pulled from under them.

Bong’s commitment to the nuances of social reality allows Parasite to not only traverse the audience’s constantly changing expectations (are the rich going to use their wealth and resources to outsmart the poor? Are the Kims going to overthrow the house?) but also shift gears from jaunty comedy to a white-knuckle thriller as faultlessly as Ki-taek turning corners on a busy road, smooth and confident as the ignorant but judgemental Mr Park looks on haughtily from the backseat.

As the story unravels and your jaw gradually makes its way to the floor, you quickly come to realise that it’s hard to distinguish who the ‘bad guys’ are here—an intentional move which speaks to the title of the film. There are the haves, basking in their fortune in the comfort of their sun-lit houses in the hills, and the have nots, confined to chthonic basements and subservience to the thankless demands of their employers.
Everything here is ‘metaphorical’, to steal a frequently recurring term from the film, but it is also everything you could ever want from a film: suspenseful, beautiful, at times hilarious, and always compelling.

 

 

 


 

 

Godzilla (1954)

1954

Director: Ishiro Honda

Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami, Sachio Sakai

Words – Rebecca Kirby

It took fifty years for the original, uncut version of Ishiro Honda’s “Godzilla” (or Gojira) to receive an official release for western audiences. In that time the films powerful message has not diminished.

“Godzilla” may be the first Kaiju (literally translated as strange creature) movie and it might feature a man in a rubber suit crushing a miniature version of Tokyo, but this is so much more than the standard B movie creature feature western audiences were accustomed to. Made less than a decade after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the USA, Godzilla explores a very complex set of emotions.

With an air of dread and a bleak theme, “Godzilla” embodies the destructive atomic realisations of the Japanese nation, the worlds first post apocalyptic society. It’s a window into the soul of a nation that had it’s psyche crushed in unimaginable horror, rebuilding under US occupation and trying to come to terms with it’s past and future.

Director Ishiro Honda, who had been drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army during wartime, not only witnessed the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 but also saw first hand the aftermath of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. It’s clear to see how this influenced Godzilla’s scene’s of devastation in Tokyo, full of haunting visions of a city on fire.

The film was considered so bleak, particularly for American audiences, that the version that was released to western audiences in 1956, “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” was re-edited to remove around forty minutes of footage, including some key plot points and to incorporate twenty minutes of new footage featuring Raymond Burr as an American reporter. This version was dubbed into English and featured a more uplifting final statement from Burr.

Originally conceived under the working title of “The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea“, the initial creature designs were very different from the Godzilla we now know and love. The original outline featured a giant octopus, while later a gorilla or whale inspired creature was considered, with the monster to be christened Gojira – a combination of the Japanese words for gorilla (gorira) and whale (kujira) before settling on the now iconic dinosaur inspired design.

The Godzilla suit was constructed from latex and molten rubber over a frame built from bamboo, wire and metal mesh. Weighing over 200 pounds, the suit was so heavy that performer Haruo Nakajima would pass out after only three minutes inside and lost 20 pounds during filming.

Godzilla’s distinctive cry was created by composer Akira Ifukube by running a leather glove along a stringed instrument after recordings of various animals were dismissed.

Opening with the destruction of a small fishing boat by a unknown force off Odo Island, itself a reference to the Lucky Dragon 5 incident in 1954, where a Japanese trawler was caught in the radioactive fallout from a US nuclear test at Bikini Atoll, “Godzilla” spells out it’s intentions from the start.

When a further incident causes destruction on Odo Island, killing nine people and dozens of farm animals in the process, the Government sends paleontologist Dr Yamane to investigate.

Dr Yamane discovers giant radioactive footprints along with a long extinct trilobite, before he has the opportunity to glimpse the terrifying Godzilla himself. He concludes that Godzilla is an ancient sea creature whose habitat has been disrupted by the hydrogen bomb tests conducted in the area.

After a plan to destroy Godzilla by using depth charges fails, the government seeks advice from Dr Yamane on how to kill the monster. Dr Yamane insists that having survived the H-bombs, Godzilla cannot be killed and the only course of action is to study him to understand how he has survived the nuclear blasts and even grown stronger as a result.

Emiko, Dr Yamane’s daughter seeks to break off her engagement to Dr Serizawa, a colleague of her father, in order to marry Hideto Ogata, a salvage ship captain that she is in love with. When Emiko visits Dr Serizawa he reveals to her the secret project that he has been working on. This demonstration causes Emiko to flee in horror without breaking off her engagement.

After Godzilla emerges in Tokyo Bay and devastates Shinagawa Ward, a further plan to kill him is put into action involving electrified fences and military force but this too fails. Tokyo suffers further destruction and hospitals are filled with casualties.

 

A distraught Emiko reveals the existence of Dr Serizawa’s research, a superweapon named the Oxygen Destroyer, to Ogata. Together they approach Serizawa to persuade him to use this against Godzilla. Serizawa is reluctant to use the Oxygen Destroyer as he fears it falling into the wrong hands but after seeing the aftermath of the devastation of Tokyo he finally agrees to it’s use.

Before boarding a Navy vessel to plant the Oxygen Destroyer in Tokyo Bay, Serizawa burns his notes so the weapon cannot be replicated. Once the ship has reached it’s destination, Serizawa insists on deploying his creation alone, deliberately cutting off his own oxygen supply in the process.

The Oxygen Destroyer succeeds in killing Godzilla and the film ends with a sober and grim warning from Dr Yamane that the continuation of nuclear testing would risk the emergence of more Godzilla’s.

It’s perhaps worth noting here the contrast between Dr Serizawa, who would rather sacrifice himself than allow his invention to be used for war, with the initial celebration in the US of the “father of the atomic bomb” J Robert Oppenheimer, who would appear on the cover of Time magazine in 1948. Ironically, Oppenheimer would appear on the cover of Time once again in 1954, the same year Godzilla was released, when he was stripped of his security clearances after suggesting that controls should be placed on the development of nuclear power.

Ultimately, the death of Godzilla is not seen as something to celebrate, the film never shying away from the fact that man is responsible for creating this monster. While his path of destruction must be stopped, Dr Yamane serves to remind us that Godzilla is also a victim of mankind’s nuclear ambitions, an unintended but inevitable consequence of the human disregard for the natural world.
Considering the current state of the planet’s climate and the continued stock piling of nuclear weapons by the world’s superpowers, it seems that in the 66 years since Godzilla was first unleashed we have still yet to learn those lessons.

 


 

 

Japan 2020


From Akira Kurosawa, to Godzilla and Studio Ghibli, Japan has given the world some of its most iconic titles in cinema.

To mark the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games taking place in Tokyo, we took a retrospective look at a selection of films which hold a lasting influence on cinema and popular culture, as well as those from filmmakers whose influences can be seen in modern Japanese cinema.

The 2020 Olympics – which, in the landmark cyberpunk anime Akira (1988), were actually predicted to take place in Tokyo – would see celebrations of Japanese culture take place across the UK and around the world.
With the games now postponed, we still wanted to celebrate cinema at a time when audiences look to discover (and re-discover) new and classic titles
click on the film title to see our review.

 

Totoro tree 1

> My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

Seen by many as the gateway film into Studio Ghibli, the work of director Hayao Miyazaki, even Japanese animation itself.

 

Godzilla 1954

> Godzilla (1954)

A film with a powerful message around mankind’s destructive nature, Godzilla is perhaps one of Japan’s most iconic and important films of the 20th Century.

 

Ran-1

> RAN (1985)

From a master of cinema, RAN from director Akira Kurosawa is considered his last true epic.

 

Tetsuo TheIronMan 1989

> Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

A film often compared to the works of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, but so unique it’s almost beyond categorisation.

 

shogun-assassin

> Shogun Assassin (1980)

The kind of bloody, balletic Samurai film you rarely see made anymore, Shogun Assassin stands as perhaps one of the finest examples of the genre.

 

BR 20

> Battle Royale (2000)

Immediately gaining a cult status upon its release and smashing its way into popular culture, Battle Royale tells the story of what happens when a high school class is set loose on an island and told only one will leave alive.

 

7S1954

> Seven Samurai (1954)

Considered by many to be the greatest film of all time, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is a milestone in cinema, influencing generations of countless filmmakers.

 

TekkonKinkreet2

> Tekkonkinkreet (2006)

A standout anime feature based on the popular Japanese manga.

 

HMC 01

> Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

A favourite among Studio Ghibli fans, following a young woman as she embarks on a journey with a wizard in an enormous walking castle.

 

Kiki D Service 1

> Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

An enchanting tale following a young witch as she moves to a small seaside town with her talking cat and opens a delivery service.

 

spiritedaway

> Spirited Away (2001)

A truly original tale of magic and adventure, and listed by many as one of the best films of all time.

 

princesse-mononoke

> Princess Mononoke (1997)

A story of conflict and the search for peace between humans and nature.

 

MATWF 3

> Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2018)

A film which will feel familiar to Studio Ghibli fans, and one to be enjoyed by all. An enchanting world and a heartfelt story.

 

TBATB

> The Boy and the Beast (2015)

A touching story, telling a tale of an unlikely friendship and how we find strength in one another.

 

Shoplifters 1

> Shoplifters (2018)

An exploration of relationships and belonging, in an understated but powerful social drama from director Hirokazu Kore-eda.

 

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> Our Little Sister (2015)

A sincere and charming portrait of family life.

 

 

BFIplayerJapan

The BFI has launched its Japan 2020 season, presenting Japanese film in new collections each month.
See a range of iconic Japanese titles via the BFI Player:

https://player.bfi.org.uk/japan-2020

 


 

 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Director: Céline Sciamma

Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino

Words – Rhiannon Topham

Describing a film as a ‘historical drama’ conjures particularly priggish dress, dialogue and narrative, none of which is typically original or disruptive to the staid all ways of the genre.
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, however, is not one of those historical dramas. There is still a plentiful of corsets and petticoats, and there’s at least one character who’s a countess, but there is also something else: a genuine, recognisable sense of human desire, embroiled with obsession, fear, and of course, lots of sexual tension.

Set in Brittany in 1760, Portrait recounts a tale of forbidden love. When we first meet Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter now posing for her class of female students, it would almost be befitting for her to turn, look down the lens of the camera, and do a Fleabag: “This is a love story.”
We then go back in time to unravel the slow burning and passionate romance that flourished during Marianne’s brief stay on the northern coast of France. It was here where she was drafted by an Italian noblewoman to paint a portrait of her elusive and reclusive daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), which will then be shipped off for approval from her betrothed, an unknown but wealthy man based in Milan.

Marianne’s stay is under the guise of companionship to Héloïse, who has just returned from a convent following the death of her sister. Not only is she mourning the loss of her sibling, but she also vehemently opposes this engagement and has sabotaged the attempts of previous portraitists by refusing to sit for them. Marianne is to accompany Héloïse on her walks to the seafront by day, and then privately paint her from memory by night.
Sciamma establishes the essence of forbidness from the outset, keeping Héloïse’s face hidden from both Marianne and the viewer until a pivotal moment when suddenly her physiognomy is brought to the fore for all to see, like the rediscovery of a masterpiece thought lost or destroyed.

Initially there seems to be a relative froideur between the two women, who are, beneath the pretence of amity, basically strangers. Marianne is both perplexed and transfixed by Héloïse’s mysteriousness, and on the surface one could mistake the latter’s distance as mere pretentiousness or formality. But the truth is all in the sly, yet often obvious, stolen glances; the slow-burning infatuation of discovering something new about someone every time you look at them, and the sheer pleasure and confusion of savouring those moments to yourself and then, in this case, eventually having to share those memories with an unknown other elsewhere on the continent.

There have been plenty of obvious comparisons between Portrait and Blue is the Warmest Colour. What’s distinct and profound about this story is that there’s no immediate attraction or lust; an easy narrative device that male directors so readily employ in retelling relationships between women. Rather, this is about seeing and being seen, the corporeal as much as the spiritual and emotional, and this goes beyond the romance.
This notion speaks directly to the central theme of repressed womanhood: Héloïse is to be married to someone she has never met, and is to sit for a portrait which successfully sells her as a suitable wife; her doting maid, Sophie, is forced to make a historically significant choice about an unwanted pregnancy, a momentous decision which Marianne later depicts on canvas; and Marianne’s very profession is a display of defiance, during a time when women were either heavily restricted in their access to creativity and art or were shut out completely.

Reversing the male gaze has never been done with quite the grace and poignancy as shown in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and every element works in harmony to create something so subjectively accessible and objectively beguiling, from the chemistry between the all-female cast to the masterful direction and prophetic script, and the opening scene in Marianne’s studio to the climactic grand finale in the opera house.

★★★★★

 

 


 

 

Babyteeth

Director: Shannon Murphy

Starring: Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis

Words – Rhiannon Topham

Our first flame is usually a clumsy affair, defined more by how awkward everything is than any real or lasting affection. The majority of these ‘relationships’ end swiftly with the heartbreaking realisation that things seldom last forever; but for Babyteeth’s 16-year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen), this has particular poignancy as she knows that her first love is probably going to be her last.

Milla has an unnamed form of terminal cancer, for which her doting parents, the gifted pianist Anna (Essie Davis) and psychiatrist Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), bestow a great deal of anguish that Milla does not share. When 23-year-old Moses (Toby Wallace) charges into Milla on a train platform, nearly tossing her onto the tracks, a tempestuous and often dangerous romance ensues. In addition to the age gap, and rather predictably, these two darlings are completely different in almost every possible way; Moses is a drug taker and dealer who has been exiled from the family home, whereas Milla lives in a leafy middle class suburb, attends a girls only school and plays the violin.

Scanlen strikes a subtle balance in negotiating Milla’s amorphous emotions, moving from fury to acceptance to vulnerability and back again. Mendelsohn and Davis are also on fine form, each bringing a different quality of helplessness to their parenting responsibilities as well as nuances in how they distract themselves from the reality that their baby will probably never get better and the kindest thing to do would be to let her savour what life she has left, no matter how questionable those choices may be.

Despite Milla’s displays of defiance, the good days are woven in with the bad and we are reminded of her frailty at several key stages of the film, marked out by chapter titles such as “It didn’t feel like a love story that day” and “What the dead said to Milla”, an especially delicate scene of introspection where Milla is allowed some space to breath outside of Moses’ raucous nature and the deafening clamour of her parents walking on eggshells.

As a debut, Babyteeth is a compelling tragicomedy of family, love and acceptance. It is by no means the first teenage cancer indie film, yet this consummate cast keep this one from crossing into cliche on the well-trodden ground of coming of age romcoms, interjected by overtly concerned and covertly struggling parents.

★★★★

 

 

 


 

 

Saint Maud


Director: Rose Glass

Starring: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle

Words – Rhiannon Topham

It takes a very rare beast of a directorial debut to make you wince, laugh and question the capacity of the human mind in less than 90 minutes.
Rose Glass’s Saint Maud, a sinuous saga of madness and torment respects the many religion-inspired films in the horror genre, but suggests a surprising range of stylistic and narrative inspirations, from Lynn Ramsay’s grit to Edward Hopper’s loners in diners.

Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a palliative nurse in a dilapidated seaside town who we first see crouched in a corner covered in blood. As far as first impressions go, it’s about as menacing as it can get. When she’s drafted to care for Amanda Köhl (Jennifer Ehle), a former dancer and choreographer now rendered housebound by illness and disability, the initial apprehension between the two eases into admiration and intrigue before regressing to outright repulsion; Maud for Amanda’s decadent lifestyle and coterie of hedonistic creatives, Amanda for Maud’s myopic opinion of how life should be lived.

Maud is a character of extremes; self-destructive in one ‘life’ and ascetic in another. Her obsequious quest to strive in her newfound piousness is juxtaposed with Amanda’s lucid, albeit anaesthetized, compos mentis. Maud’s religious conversion has granted her a moxie seemingly absent in her past, when, it transpires, she wasn’t a Maud at all. The fresh Maud persona is one she has crafted to support her search for the ‘greater purpose’ God has planned for her, an unassailable transcendental goal which swallows her whole and greedily possesses her in mind, body and spirit.

Maud’s nascent life of righteousness comes to an abrupt end when she is removed from her post as Amanda’s carer. Where to go when you are stripped of your purpose in life? All of her feelings of jealousy, confusion, virulence and an almost psychedelic bodily experience of spirituality reach fever pitch as she succumbs to the darker forces chipping away at her sanity and she becomes mimetic of the hellish creatures depicted by William Blake in a book gifted to her by Amanda.

As an addition to the horror-Renaissance of recent years, Saint Maud is an alarmingly accomplished debut by a talented and — dare I say it — innovative director to get excited about. Glass has clearly wasted no time on narrative trumpery with this, and at a tidy 84 minutes, all the key proponents harmonise perfectly to create an unnerving atmosphere in which neither Maud nor the audience are sure what our Saint will do next.
This is no average God-fearing horror; it is the fragility of the human mind that is the most frightening.

★★★★★

 

 

 


 

 

BFI Film Festival 2020 selection


The BFI Film Festival is the UK’s premiere platform for welcoming international storytellers, featuring a selection of highly anticipated films.

Taking place October 7th – 18th, this year’s festival will be its most accessible ever, presenting over 50 online premieres as well as screenings in cinemas around the UK, offering audiences a unique chance to engage with the festival in different ways.
See the cinemas across the UK taking part in this year’s festival here:

https://www.bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival/venues-across-uk


With some truly standout films coming in 2020, see our pick of 5 films to see at the festival and beyond…


POSSESSOR

The latest feature from Brandon Cronenberg (son of revered director David Cronenberg), Possessor is a sci-fi horror-thriller which garnered widespread praise at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Following the elite, corporate assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), as brain-implant technology allows her to take control of other people’s bodies to execute high profile targets.
While she holds a special gift for the work, her experiences have caused a dramatic change in her, and as her mental strain intensifies, she begins to lose control, as she soon finds herself trapped in the mind of a man whose identity threatens to obliterate her own.

Details here: https://www.bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival/screenings/possessor


Nomadland

From director Chloe Zhao, whose feature film The Rider stood out as one of the best films of 2018, Nomadland explores life outside conventional society.

Following the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada, Fern (Frances McDormand) packs her van and sets off on the road exploring life through the vast landscape of the American West.
Adapted from the 2017 non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder – Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the film features real nomads Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells as Fern’s mentors and comrades in her exploration of the vast expanse of the Western United States.

Details here: https://www.bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival/screenings/nomadland


Mogul Mowgli

Director Bassam Tariq’s debut fiction feature, stars Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Star Wars: Rogue One), drawing from his own musical background and British-Pakistani roots to deliver a personal performance in a film about a fierce MC on the cusp of a major tour and commercial success, whose dreams of global fame are cut-down by an autoimmune disease.

A sharp examination of cultural heritage, identity politics, family and the impact of physical illness, Mogul Mowgli is an honest evocation of the British-Asian experience.

Details here: https://www.bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival/screenings/mogul-mowgli


Mangrove

The Opening Film for this year’s BFI Film Festival, ‘Mangrove’ from Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave, Widows, Shame) is the true story of the Mangrove 9, a group of Black activists who were arrested for leading the protest and changed British history by taking a stand against racial discrimination.

The Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill doubled as a community centre for Black Londoners, as police brutality and harassment intensified, the Mangrove also became a site of resistance, leading to a historic protest against police harassment.

‘Mangrove’ is one of five Small Axe films by Steve McQueen.

Details here: https://www.bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival/screenings/mangrove


Ammonite

From Francis Lee, director of the phenomenal God’s Own Country, Ammonite is the Closing Film for this year’s BFI Film Festival.

In the 1840s, acclaimed palaeontologist Mary Anning works alone on the wild and brutal Southern English coastline of Lyme Regis.

As Mary is entrusted to care for a young woman dealing with a personal tragedy, she clashes with her unwanted guest, as the two women inhabit utterly different worlds.
Yet despite the differences in their social spheres and personalities, the two discover they can each offer what the other has been searching for, as they develop an intense relationship altering both of their lives forever.

Details here: https://www.bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival/screenings/ammonite



See the full programme and browse through this year’s feature films here:

https://www.bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival/strands/feature-films

screening details can be found on each title page.

The entire BFI Film Festival Short Film Programme will be free to watch on BFI Player, you can see the programme here:

https://www.bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival/strands/short-film-programmes


Night of the Living Dead (1968)


1968

Director: George A. Romero

Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley

Words – Oliver Innocent

 

Night of the Living Dead (NOTLD) is a key piece of ‘60s American cinema that ushered in a new wave of horror. NOTLD and the films that appeared in its wake in the 1970s, differed from the old guard of horror in that they were hybrids.
They were at once unashamed B-exploitation-movies with lurid titles like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and studies of the socio-political climate of the time. Often independently made with no studio interference and frequently featuring an almost cinema verité style verisimilitude, this was a true cinematic revolution.

George A Romero’s NOTLD spearheaded this revolution in spectacular fashion. A kind of cinematic trojan horse, Romero’s film at first glance appeared nothing more than a standard drive-in horror picture. The film’s title screams exploitation movie as does its graveyard opening sequence, stock music score, and sub-plot about a downed space probe. It almost feels like a relic of the ‘50s creature feature trend.
However, as the film unfolds, it becomes apparent NOTLD has much more to offer than its B-movie exterior would suggest. The farmhouse where survivors are holed up during the beginning of a zombie apocalypse is a microcosm of ‘60s America, a particularly tumultuous time in American history.

Allusions to the war in Vietnam are evident in the imagery of burning bodies and piles of corpses. There is also the divide in the house between those who want to go out and fight, and those who want to stay inside and not participate. The constant television news coverage also recalls the way in which the war became a part of everyday life, beamed straight into family living rooms.

Race relations is another serious issue the story brings to the fore. Ostensibly written as a white male lead, the role of the film’s hero, ‘Ben’ went to African American actor Duane Jones. One of the first, if not the first, black male leads in horror cinema, it marked a revolutionary step forward. This is a smart, capable black character that doesn’t pander to stereotypes.
Keeping Ben grounded in reality rather than portraying him as a black caricature ensures the tension between him and stubborn middle-aged white man Harry feels more genuine and impactful. Never explicitly about race, their clashing and distrust of each other nevertheless feels like a comment on relations between black and white ‘60s America.
This is further solidified by the film’s shocking ending where, after surviving the night of terror, Ben’s fate does not lie with a horde of zombies, but with a white militia mob. Recalling the assassination of black civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr (which took place in the same year just months before the film’s release), the film ends on a sombre, disturbing note.

NOTLD is just as relevant now as it was in the ‘60s, especially amidst the Black Lives Matter protest movement. It also feels oddly prescient with the Coronavirus lockdown where people have been stuck indoors while a strange, hitherto unknown disease makes the outside world a frightening place.

Aside from its exploration of the socio-political state of America, NOTLD also modernised the horror genre with its unflinching, realistic, taboo-breaking depictions of violence. The zombies don’t just kill their victims, they devour them in gory detail. From here on in horror got more brutal, downbeat and serious.
It has also been influential in spawning a multitude of horror sub-genres. Of course, modern zombie films and series such as The Walking Dead wouldn’t exist if not for Romero’s film, but there’s also cabin in the woods horrors like The Evil Dead and Cabin Fever which expand on the horrors of the film’s rural farmhouse setting. Then there’s a slew of films that have adapted the siege element of the story like John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness where a group of students are trapped in an old church with possessed homeless people preventing their escape.

Holding a mirror up to a nation divided on issues of race and war, Romero’s small, low budget horror film has proved to be an enduring classic of American cinema, as well as the ultimate, apocalyptic exploration of the death of the American Dream. Trapped in the farmhouse with no escape, the characters lose their freedom, their hope, their civilised exteriors, and their lives.

 

 

 


 

 

Sisters with Transistors

 

2020

Director: Lisa Rovner

Narrated By: Laurie Anderson

Words – Natalie Mills

 

“This is the story of women who hear music in their head. Of radical sounds where there was once silence.”

A full sensory experience, Sisters with Transistors tells the stories of ten women, and how each shaped the future of electronic music, fittingly narrated by Laurie Anderson – composer of the avant-garde classic O Superman.
Our eyes are treated to some incredible analogue technology; the knobs, tape reels and computer screens that make up these women’s worlds, while we’re also shown the workings of their instrumentation. We’re awarded a mind-blowing soundtrack; from Clara Rockmore playing a theremin as gracefully as a violin, to Delia Derbyshire’s creation of the Dr Who theme, and Suzanne Ciani unleashing her synths on The David Letterman Show.

As a woman working in tech, the daughter of a “lady pianist”, and a fan of Fever Ray, I was touched by the film’s subject, being drawn to how electronic music allows you to become faceless. There is much to sit back, listen to and enjoy in Sisters with Transistors, but you’re left with a sense of injustice.
Archive footage, including experimental music videos and old BBC broadcasts, is cut together with contemporary interviews with surviving musicians. It’s as though we’re being told a secret history, and you feel sad for not recognising some of these extraordinary women’s names. The film opens with the voiceover, “The history of women has been a story of silence” and by the end, you understand exactly how electronic music can be used as a tool for female empowerment.

Despite each of the ten composers’ stories being very different – from mathematicians and sound engineers, through to artists and classical musicians – they’re universally drawn to the DIY aspect of electronic music. Being the undeniable sole creator, they have total control over everything they produce.
“The machine doesn’t write the music. You tell the machine what to do and the machine is an extension of you”, explains Laurie Spiegel, creator of Music Mouse software for Mac. She recalls of how she was told she couldn’t become a composer – “Composers were old dead white men”. The pioneers in Sisters with Transistors share of how they were underestimated or ignored, with French composer Eliane Radigue even telling how someone said it was good to have her in the studio because “she smelt nice”. It’s disheartening, and seems a world away from a scene where artists of today like Grimes have space to thrive.

We’re shown of how historically, people were suspicious of electronic music, whatever your gender. It was considered “diabolical” in France, and music made using computers was snubbed by counterculture as belonging to the realm of banks and offices. Bebe Barron’s (together with husband Louis) unearthly score for 1956’s Forbidden Planet was credited as “Electronic Tonalities”, as it wasn’t considered music.

Some of the standout footage is the oldest; seeing equipment being used “creatively” for the first time. We witness Daphne Oram, a sound engineer during WW2 and one of the founders of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, drawing onto magnetic tape to create sound. We meet mathematician Delia Derbyshire, who arranged the Dr Who theme in 1963, educating BBC viewers on sound wave shapes. She was presented in the guise of a teacher, more than as a creative force. Her iconic sounds did a lot to dispel distaste for electronic music. Despite influencing artists such as Aphex Twin and the Chemical Brothers, she died “unsung” and burnt out.

Inspired by the eerie wails of air raid sirens (still holding a feeling of mystery on how they produce their sound), these British women were convinced that electronic music was the sound of the future. After all, many of the first computer coders were women, as it was considered barely a step above typing, but then as coding became more valued, it became seen more as a “male” role.

“Outspoken gay feminist” Pauline Olivernos felt wildly ahead of her time; we see her and her friends even create sounds using bathtubs and cardboard tubes. There’s a real sense that electronic music is for everyone. Her article “And Don’t Call Them “Lady” Composers” is still a fascinating, angry read.
Enigmatic sound artist Maryanne Amacher’s house is packed full of wires and technology – “it was in breathtakingly bad condition” someone comments. An absolute rejection of the homemaker stereotype, she seems focused on nothing but the overwhelming noises she’s creating in her space.
Fearless, charismatic Suzanne Ciani explains, “I play the synthesizer in the same way somebody else would play the cello”. Teaming up with the female writer of The Incredible Shrinking Woman, she created its entire soundtrack. Ciani reminded me a lot of my mother – beaming over a keyboard, charming everyone within a mile’s radius with sound.

Whether it was creating compositions for “helping people”, or making listeners experience an altered state through strange frequencies, Sisters with Transistors makes for some great playlist inspiration. Even if electronic music isn’t your cup of tea, the technology, equipment and processes used are amazing to behold. It’s impossible to cram in everything about these ten composers into one film, and it’s similarly difficult to fit everything into just one review.
Whether you’re interested in technology, feminism or electro (or even none of the above), Sisters with Transistors is a must-watch addition to music history. You’ll be desperate to stroke a synth afterwards.

★★★★★

https://sisterswithtransistors.com

 

clip from Forbidden Planet (1956)
– reveal of the monster from the Id.
Score composed by Bebe and Louis Barro 

The Go-Go’s

2020

Director: Alison Ellwood

Featuring: Charlotte Caffey, Belinda Carlisle, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine, Jane Wiedlin

Words – Natalie Mills

People automatically assume that we were probably put together by some guy, but we did it all ourselves.”

The Go-Go’s made history as the first all-female group to write their own songs, play their own instruments, and release a No. 1 album.

This compelling documentary is a collage of archive footage, nostalgia-triggering 80s photos, and individual interviews with all involved. You see The Go-Go’s start as a bunch of misfits in the L.A. punk scene; now they laugh that it didn’t matter whether you could play your instruments – “if you were terrible you were cooler”.
They reminisce about playing at The Masque – a small punk rock club in Hollywood – and joke about their three-song set, “two of those were the same song”.

It’s the angry, punk rock Go-Go’s rather than the poppier, girlier incarnation most fans know and love that really excites here. The idea of starting an all-girl group in a male-dominated punk scene, rocking the no-shits-given attitude of The Eyes’ “Don’t Talk to Me” is thrilling. Go-Go’s the 80s pop group seemed a mile away from the punks “people used to cross the street” from, but their biggest crowd-pleaser at gigs “We Got The Beat” was undoubtedly a pop song, so change was on the cards.

After a tour with Madness and The Specials in London (and having boyfriends in both), and getting some serious hate from The National Front, they garnered a large volume of interest. Then with a change of bassist and the hit single “Our Lips Are Sealed”, they finally got signed.

All seems rosy for a while; you see how fun it was creating videos for MTV, and hear how Sting brought them champagne as they overtook The Police in the album charts. It was a hectic schedule of photoshoots, continual gigs and band practice; you start to see the cracks in their exhaustion from touring and the “difficult” second album. Add to this, Charlotte (the writer of their hits), started to isolate herself. We learn that she was fighting a heroin addiction.

Despite the water-skiing in tutus of the “Vacation” video, being a Go-Go gets progressively bleak, and by the third album, they’re falling out. Belinda and Gina feel unappreciated in that they don’t get paid as much as songwriters Charlotte and Jane, while Jane never forgets being told – “What makes you think you’re good enough to sing a song?”.
After a brief stint without Jane, Charlotte and Belinda break up the band, citing, “She’s the voice and I write the hits”. Some of the 5 band members don’t speak for years. It gets very toxic.

Members describe being in The Go-Go’s like being “each other’s best friends and also each other’s worst enemies”, and also “fucking sisters who stab each other in the back”. Ellwood’s interviews with the “classic” quintet show a complex, not entirely wholesome mix of personalities. There’s cruelty behind the 80s sweetness, intense friendships breaking under the pressure to make it big.
We also hear from original bassist Margot (dumped for hating the move from punk to pop) and their manager Ginger (dumped in favour of a corporate, mostly male agency), who comments “anyone with any integrity wouldn’t stick around”. The more they strayed from their roots, the further you stray from The Go-Go’s.

This is undeniably a captivating documentary, they’re having such a great time it’s impossible not to want to be in their gang.
Photos of them as “The Clown Family”, sniffing lines of cocaine (there are a LOT of drugs) and giving birth to Jane, all feel bittersweet. Stories about them unsuccessfully trying to get arrested in a water fountain for a video, and Charlotte being kicked out of Ozzy’s dressing room, would be hilarious if not for also feeling kind of sad.

The 80s nostalgia and girly, coke-fuelled sleepover vibe of The Go-Go’s may be particularly enjoyed by fans of the hit-series GLOW, but there’s more than that here – a genuine lesson in music history.
Director Alison Ellwood’s standout documentary lays bare the story of the pioneering New Wave band, from their origins in the 70s punk scene, to selling out arenas with their upbeat pop, to inevitable disintegration over drugs, artistic differences and clashing egos.

★★★★★

With its International Premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020, this documentary is due for release later this year.

 

 

 


 

 

Our Little Sister

2015

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Starring: Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose

Words – Natalie Mills

Based on manga series Seaside Town Diary, Our Little Sister follows the lives of three twenty-something sisters. Abandoned by their separated parents, they live together in the beautiful, traditional old house that belonged to their grandmother. When their father (who they’ve not seen for 15 years) dies, they attend his funeral together, where they meet their half-sister, Suzu.

After realising Suzu has been caring for their father and not Suzu’s stepmother, the eldest sister Sachi invites Suzu to live with them. What follows is an uplifting story about family relationships, guilt and responsibility, and the power of eating delicious food to make everything OK again.

This is a warm bubble bath of a film. Despite deaths and family dramas, Our Little Sister maintains a feeling of hope and serenity. The family history is messy, the grief even more so, but there is a constant safety net of support and sisterly love.

The sisters themselves are well-defined, well-realised characters, beautifully acted. Sachi, the eldest and a nurse, is serious and old before her time, but she is hiding something that opposes her sensibility. Office worker Yoshino is funny and flirty, lounging around demanding, “Just give me a beer”. Chika is a chilled-out hippy oddball, whose ambiguous relationship with her colleague at the sports store keeps her two older sisters guessing.

As Suzu moves in, her three sisters fall in love with her. They admire her as she sleeps, marvel at her long eyelashes and whisper, “Her ears are like yours” as if she’s a baby. It’s hard not to – she’s just a good kid who deserves a break. You brace yourself for Our Little Sister to be about a wild teen that messes up everyone’s lives, but Suzu is a ray of sunshine to everyone she meets. She also has a cute coming-of-age romance with a boy in her football team, peaking with, “You look pretty good in that summer kimono” and a bike ride through cherry blossom.

Dysfunctional family relationships are at the heart of this film. It’s not that the parents in the film are bad, but there’s a lot of emotional baggage these four sisters could do without.
Their Great Aunt is a force to be reckoned with; she tries to discourage them from taking in Suzu, “The daughter of the woman who destroyed your family”, at all. Sachi and Yoshino try to hide their bickering in front of their new little sister – Yoshino mocks Sachi’s “old lady” clothes (despite borrowing her blouse), before screaming at her to save her from a huge cricket in the shower. The strained, fragile relationship between Sachi and their mother is tested to breaking point as she threatens to sell their home. “The girls will all get married”, their mother argues.

From their absent mother’s decade-spanning bitterness and victimhood about their father’s affair, to Suzu’s guilt that “Someone’s always hurting just because I exist”, it’s a film about adults stealing childhoods. It’s empowering to see the sisters thrive in spite of (or because of) their parents not having been around. You get to enjoy four more-or-less single young women, living their best lives in whatever way they choose.

The film ends on a message of forgiveness and moving forward. From Sachi and Suzu cathartically shouting “MUM IS AN IDIOT!” and “DAD IS AN IDIOT!” to the horizon, they accept the situation is nobody’s fault. One sister sacrifices her own happiness to avoid following her father’s example, having lived through its fallout. Or maybe she just knows she deserves better.

As well as being a beautifully shot and wholesome film, the food is another reason to watch Our Little Sister. Every meal is savoured and appreciated, and you see a lot of them.
A seaside cafe, also run by siblings, is the regular hangout for the girls. As Suzu tucks into their whitebait, she lies about having never tried it before, to avoid discussing a memory about their dad. The sisters are reminded of their mother as they eat the only meal she taught them how to cook. Yoshino observes that Sachi “bought lots of apples when she got dumped before”. The sisters giggle and imitate the “pss pss” noises of puncturing fruit with their initials as they make plum wine, and the “shhha shhha” sound of fishing for carp. Food is a big deal.

Our Little Sister isn’t action packed and there’s no big twist, it’s a sincere, chicken-soup-for-the-soul film, and a cosy escape from the world; just make sure you have plenty of comfort snacks ready.

 

 


 

 

Tekkonkinkreet

2006

Director: Michael Arias

Starring: Kazunari Ninomiya, Yû Aoi, Yûsuke Iseya, Kankurô Kudô, Min Tanaka, Rokurô Naya, Tomomichi Nishimura

Words – Joe H.

Tekkonkinkreet is based on the popular original Japanese manga series ‘Black & White‘, written by Taiyo Matsumoto. The title Tekkonkinkreet is a play on the Japanese words for ‘concrete’, ‘iron’ and ‘muscle’, referring here to the steel and concrete landscape in which this animated tale takes place.

The story follows two street orphans, ‘Black’ and ‘White’, who watch over Treasure Town – a decaying metropolis where life can be both gentle and brutal. The street-smart youngsters roam their territory like superpowered vigilante stray cats – the district is their playground – doing their best to defend it from different villains and factions vying for control to impose their own intentions on the district; from local gangs, to old-world Yakuza wanting to see a return to a time there once was, real-estate developers intent on raizing the district to the ground, and other-worldly assassins set loose to take the pair out of the equation, all threatening to destroy the very soul of the city.
As events unfold, we see an exploration of relationships with our two protagonists as well as in the opposing criminal mob, and how people can be inexplicably tied to a time and place. Stories intersect, as a metaphysical conclusion draws near in this tale of survival, deciding the fate of a city hanging on the brink of disaster.

At times this is a dark, bleak and brutally bloody tale, but delivers moments of tenderness as it explores the relationships between its characters and reveals something compelling. This is in no small part in turn to a key component of this film – its soundtrack.
Produced by British electronic music duo Plaid – who find their home on Warp Records among other long-standing artists such as Flying Lotus and Aphex Twin – the score serves the deeper themes of the film while driving the larger elements of the story. As the story begins, the music has an analogue, old-world feel, as we are introduced to Treasure Town and its inhabitants’ way of life in the opening scenes. As events develop, instrumentation gives way to a more modern sound of synths and breaks with futuristic electronica adding weight and momentum to action, while a more melancholy tone serves to carry the various internal and physical conflicts. As a metaphysical turn brings different elements of the story to a conclusion, a combining of the old and new forms take over, delivering a soothing and harmonious end.
The beauty of the visual landscape in this animation is only matched by its music – a soundtrack which elevates the events of the story, and exists with a life of its own beyond the confines of the film.

The debut directorial feature from Michael Arias – previously a co-producer of the Wachowskis’ animated anthology The Animatrix, along with previous credits including work as a visual effects artist on feature films such as The Abyss, and Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke – drawing on his background in animation and VFX to deliver a faultless blend of hand-drawn and computer-generated animation.
A standout tale of conflict, relationships and resolution – touching upon faults in present-day society – presenting engaging child characters and a multifaceted action plot in a poetic and evocative story.

★★★★★