Category: Films for children

The Italian Straw Hat (Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie, René Clair, France 1927)

Italian still 2

This is one of the classics of French cinema and one of the best films directed by René Clair. It was produced by Alexander Kamenka for Films Albatros at their Montreuil Studio. Films Albatros had started out as a film company of Russian émigrés, including the star actor Ivan Mosjoukine. However most of the émigrés had left Albatros for a new studio at Billancourt. Albatros had been in the forefront of French productions, but now it had to rebuild its success, relying on a series of comedy adaptation. The young René Clair turned in one hit, La Proie du vent (1927) and followed it up with this adaptation and updating of a famous French farce.

He was supported by an excellent cast and production team. The sets by Lazare Meerson and cinematography by Maurice Desfassiaux and Nicolas Roudakoff are all impressive. Most of the film, including many of the fine exteriors, were shot at the studio.

The film’s continued status is confirmed by it being included in Ian Christie’s The Peak of Silent Cinema:

René Clair may have become the forgotten man of classic French cinema, despite a prolific career that stretched from the dada short Entr’acte (1924) through the first French musicals of the early 30s, and up to the mid-1960s Yet his command of sophisticated comedy, both silent and sound, was second to none; and in this inventive adaptation of a vintage farce he offered a spirited alternative to the dominance of Hollywood comedy, at a time when both the French avant-garde and mainstream cinema had reached an impasse. Clair’s solution, in agreeing to film Eugene Labiche’s vintage stage play, was to update it to the belle epoque of 1895 and to shoot it with the utmost simplicity, in the style of early film. Labiche’s play was always a satire on petit bourgeois pretension, with the nurseryman as keen that his daughter should marry a ‘gentleman of leisure’ as Ferdinand is to secure his future. Everything that gets in the way of the wedding represents a threat to the social order that is being confirmed; and in this case most of the obstacles are objects, signs of property and status, which constantly threaten to get out of hand.

And Clair is equally alert to the satirical undercurrent, without ever losing sight of what Henri Bergson termed the “snowball effect… as an object rolls through the play collecting incidents as it goes”. The surrealists, who hated avant-garde pretension, saw that this was no mere

literary adaptation. With its puppet-like characters trapped in their roles, and decor that threatens to engulf them, it achieves the dream-like quality that surrealism prized­ while also remaining a thoroughly civilised, scathing and completely French comedy.

Sight & Sound November 2013

You can catch the film at the National Media Museum on Sunday May 18th with a live piano accompaniment by Darius Battiwalla.

BIFF 2014 #17: Mother, I Love You (Mammu, es tevi milu, Latvia 2013)

Raimonds runs the nighttime streets of Riga

Raimonds runs the nighttime streets of Riga

Portrait Without BleedThis charming tale of a 12-13 year-old boy tripped up by the conflicted emotions of early adolescence was my final screening at BIFF 2014. In the end it didn’t win the European Features prize but it has won other international prizes and it seemed to me a genuinely commercial film – although at 82 minutes it is a little short. I’m not best qualified to select films for children but I would want to show it to secondary school children (11+) and possibly younger. (I’m happy to be corrected if I’ve got this wrong.)

The central character is Raimonds (Kristofers Konovalovs) who is small for his age and is at that awkward stage when some of the girls in his class are tall and willowy, towering over him. He attends a specialist ‘orchestra school’ and his instrument is a saxophone. One day he plays a joke on one of the girls that misfires and he is required to take home a behavioural report to be signed by his mother. Mother (Vita Varpina, one of the professional actors) is a hardworking single parent (a doctor/midwife?). Raimonds thinks that she will react badly to his misbehaviour and he removes the page from his report book and prevents her receiving a message from the school. Of course, one lie leads to another and he finds himself in an escalating crisis which his friendship with Peteris, the drummer in the orchestra, unintentionally makes worse. Raimonds’ relationship with his mother will deteriorate further before it gets better but the film ends on an upbeat note.

The film is the second feature by Jānis Nords who trained formally after working in film and television and directing his first film in 2008. Mother, I Love You was shot on location in Riga in just 20 days with most of the cast being non-professionals. It looks and sounds very good and is directed with vitality. It can’t be easy creating a CinemaScope feature on the streets with a non-professional cast but he succeeds and I found it very enjoyable. I’ve seen several mentions of François Truffaut’s work in critical responses to the film and especially to Les quatre cents coups. There are certainly similarities but the tone of this film is quite different. Raimonds is not the ‘wild child’ presented by Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel and there is not that sense of romantic despair. Raimonds’ mother is not an uncaring parent – this trope has been passed onto Peteris who suffers beatings from his mother.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a Latvian feature before but the Press Pack for the film suggests that Raimonds “has to venture into Riga’s thrilling night-life”. This is a little hyperbolic. Raimonds visits a skate park (the actor is, the Press Pack tells us, a very good ‘extreme cyclist’) and he follows a young woman through the dark streets (she has something he needs). That’s as thrilling as it gets. Nords does not make the mistake of shifting the tone of the film. He neatly sums up his approach:

A seemingly minor misdeed can seem like grand offence bound to bring harsh consequences. Though Raimonds is faced with a moral dilemma – to act dishonestly and escape punishment or tell the truth and face backlash – I tried to avoid teaching my protagonist a moral lesson. Instead, I was looking to portray a child, who thrown into the wildest of circumstances and confronted with tough choices, manages to maintain humanity and gain conscience. In other words, a child who “grows up”.

I hope the film has more festival showings in the UK. It should be on general release but I fear it won’t get picked up. If it does get a screening near you, please go.

I Wish (Kuseki, Japan 2011)

The children wait for the Shinkansen to pass.

The children wait for the Shinkansen to pass.

Here is a film from a director who deserves the title of ‘Contemporary Master’ because of his skill in constructing stories rich in everyday details. Several of his films have unusual stories at their centre, but each set of characters is presented without anything other than seemingly simple observation. We learn a great deal about life in Japan from these details and have our faith in the future re-established by depictions of family relations that promise nothing spectacular but still have a profound effect on most audiences – they make them feel better about the world.

Kore-eda Hirokazu’s films sometimes take a long time to get to the UK and some never get here at all. In this context it was good to see I Wish in UK cinemas in March (even if his new film was just about to be announced for Cannes in May). I was lucky to see the film a couple of times but unable at the time to post to the blog. Now it has been released on DVD in the UK I’ve dug out the notes I made for an introduction to a screening in Bradford.

Kore-eda Hirokazu (born 1962)

Kore-eda went first into television documentary production, eventually emerging as a director in 1991. It would be another four years before he made his first fiction feature Maborisi for cinema release in 1995. He has now completed seven further fiction features. His documentary training is evident in certain scenes in I Wish in which children seem to be answering an interviewer’s questions – this appears natural rather than artificial.

Kore-eda’s themes are primarily concerned with families and relationships. This and his seemingly slow contemplative approach have seen him compared to Ozu Yasujiro and it is certainly possible to spot similarities between the two directors’ work. But Kore-eda does not use the same stylistic features that are familiar from Ozu’s later work. A more useful comparison is likely to be with the two leading figures of the Taiwanese New Cinema of the 1980s, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. In particular, critics have discussed I Wish in terms of the Edward Yang film Yi Yi (A One and a Two, Taiwan 2000) which also focused on three generations of a family – with each family member facing their own problems.

The incident that ‘kicks off’ the narrative in I Wish is the separation of two brothers after their parents split up. The older Koichi lives with his mother and her parents and the younger Ryu lives with his father – the boys are separated physically by some 200 miles but they speak to each other by ’phone virtually every day. The title of the film in Japanese actually translates as ‘miracle’ but there is nothing religious about this. Instead it refers to a rumour about something that might happen when the first Shinkansen (‘bullet train’) service along the West coast of the island of Kyushu began in 2011. Kore-eda was approached to make a film using this event. This is reminiscent of the British film by Shane Meadows, Somers Town in 2008, which constructed its narrative around the opening of the new Eurostar station at St. Pancras. Kore-eda received some support from the railway company, but there is no suggestion that the film is a form of advertisement for the railway (something which dogged Meadows).

Family life in Japan

One of the clichés about Japanese culture as viewed from the West is that Japan is a mix of tradition and modernity – and that this extends into family relations. What is certainly true is that many of the films that reach the UK feature families that have ‘broken up’ and that this is represented as a social problem to a much greater extent than in the UK – partly because the different legal system in Japan means that one divorced parent is often excluded from a relationship with their child. The ‘Ring cycle’ of ghost stories focuses on the single mother – child relationship as does the associated film Dark Water (Japan 2002). In an earlier Kore-eda film, Nobody Knows (2004), a single mother tells one of her children that he must expect to be bullied at school because he doesn’t have a father. On the other hand, Japanese attitudes towards children and parental control often seem surprisingly ‘liberal’ compared to those in the UK.

The extended Japanese family

One of the fascinations for UK audiences in Japanese family-based films might be the sense that Japanese society has already begun to experience some of the profound changes in demographics and socio-economic factors that are likely to be so important in the UK over the next few years. As the UK enters a ‘triple-dip’ economic recession we might look at Japan where such conditions have lasted for over twenty years since the early 1990s. The result is a struggling generation of thirty to fifty year-olds with little job security and possibly a sense of wasted lives. At the same time, Japan has developed an ageing population structure with a low birth rate not balanced by the same levels of incoming migrants as the UK. Three generations face different problems but now find themselves in the same households, partly through economic necessity. Kore-eda provides us with narrative strands which at least open up some of these issues in relation to parents and grandparents, but still retain the central focus on the children. In I Wish we see the children and the grandparents as active and imaginative in the schemes they hatch (separately) while the parents are the ones trapped by their circumstances.

Kore-eda’s approach

Kore-eda Hirokazu is an ‘artisanal’ filmmaker who has a small group of collaborators and who makes his films over a long period rather than working for a major studio. He uses many of the same actors in each film with occasional better-known lead figures. Odagiri Jô, who plays the musician father, is an actor from independent and international cinema. These actors will be more prepared for the Kore-eda approach. His work with children requires a long casting period. I Wish depends to a great extent on the performance of the real life Maeda brothers – who were already established as a comedy duo when Kore-eda found them. He subsequently re-worked the script to make the most of their exceptional qualities.

Railways

Kore-eda accepted this project partly because of his interest in films about children and partly because of a love of railways, He also had a great-grandfather from the city of Kagoshima at one end of the line. The Japanese are proud of their railway system (developed as an amalgam of British and American ideas – Japan drives on the left and trains similarly run on the left) and it is another feature of Ozu’s cinema. The first Shinkansen trains ran in 1964. “I Wish” UK governments had had the same foresight!

I was entranced by this film. I think most people who have seen will agree that however you felt when you started watching it, by the end you will better about yourself and about the world. One of my friends described it as ‘gossamer light’. I know what he meant but this isn’t something that would blow away in a wind. Somehow it is both ‘light’ and ‘substantial’.

At some point I’m going to try and go back and watch the earlier films that I haven’t had time to watch properly. Still Walking and Air Doll are both on the blog already. Kore-eda has few equals in contemporary cinema, so don’t miss out!

Hugo 3D (US 2011)

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) with the mechanical automaton

I’m glad that I saw Hugo in 3D on a big screen and I enjoyed watching the film despite the effort of stopping those glasses sliding down my nose. On reflection, however, I’ve got mixed feelings about the enterprise. I was impressed by Martin Scorsese’s use of 3D as a medium and the ways in which he used the format to explore/promote the use of special effects in cinema – including the bizarre presentation of clips from the films of Georges Méliès in 3D! But I’m not sure that I like it as a format. It makes the cinema feel like a theatre with the over-dramatic sense of separation of characters in the depth of presentation. I much prefer the use of deep focus and staging in depth. This occurred to me in a scene which included an older man, a small boy and snowflakes – surely a reference to the famous ‘staging in depth’ scene in Citizen Kane?

Hugo is stuffed with references, making it an over-rich feast for cinephiles. But this is ostensibly a film for children (and their parents). We watched the film at the end of its run in a large multiplex auditorium with only a modest audience. The children were quiet throughout the film – which I take to mean that they were engrossed as I suspect that they would have complained if they were bored. At the end, eavesdropping on a couple of families, I understood that they had quietly enjoyed the film – but it wasn’t the film that they were expecting. I’m not competent to judge what makes a good children’s film but I think Hugo probably works best as a spectacle rather than as a story. I thought that the script was weak in places and some scenes lacked the spark that they might have had if there wasn’t so much focus on the beautiful matte paintings and 3D staging. I enjoyed all the performances, although Sacha Baron Cohen was irritating – but I can see why others found him entertaining. The promotional materials keep telling us that this is Scorsese’s ‘first family film’, but it does have several elements in common with Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), one of Marty’s lesser-known movies. And if Kundun is included, he has made three films with important younger characters – mercifully not treating them with the sugary confections of Spielberg. He also cast a young Jody Foster in a very different kind of film – Taxi Driver.

Hugo is a long film but it doesn’t deliver as much narrative as I expected. There seem to be three parts to the film. One is a story about Hugo himself and how as an orphan he needs to keep out of the clutches of the authorities in Paris in the late 1920s – personified by the ‘Station Inspector’ (Baron Cohen), a war veteran who was himself an orphan and who now seems obsessed with rounding up waifs and strays who stray onto his patch. The second is a mystery in which Hugo and a slightly older girl, Isabelle, eventually join forces to discover the secret of the automaton which Hugo’s father was attempting to repair when he died. These two narrative strands combine to provide the ‘action adventure’ material in the film. But a fair amount of the final third of the film is taken up with what is essentially a rather conventional, but brilliantly presented visual essay on early cinema delivered by Scorsese – chair of the World Cinema Foundation and prime conservator of great films. This offers a different kind of spectacle in 3D, didactic perhaps but I’m sure we are all pleased that future film audiences are shown clips from films up to 1930 in the correct ratio and colours (i.e. with all the correct tinting of prints).

Hugo is adapted (by John Logan) from a book by Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2008). Selznick is a designer and illustrator as well as an author and there is a link on this website that shows some of the book’s many illustrations. This demonstrates very well that many of what might be assumed to be Scorsese’s ideas for framings and compositions are taken directly from the book. This doesn’t detract from Scorsese’s artistic achievement but it does tend to reinforce the idea that the whole project is driven by a desire to recreate a Parisian environment of the late 1920s, possibly at the expense of a coherent narrative. I’ll have to watch it again, but there were aspects of the chronology of the story that didn’t make sense to me and there are weaknesses of characterisation. Chloë Grace Moretz as Isabelleis rather wasted I think as the character is given little to do. I just wonder if Marty was so entranced by the excitement generated by 3D and the enormous sets, real and virtual, he had to play with that he forgot about the story. This is surprising since he must have thought about some of the other films that aspects of the story were likely to provoke in his imagination. Two that struck me were the boy’s constant observation of the station crowds which reminded me of the boy looking at the ‘forbidden’ in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (UK 1959) (one of Scorsese’s favourites) and the ‘underworld’ existence in Paris which reminded me of The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Hugo is a children’s film but that doesn’t mean it has to lose the possibility of a complex and intriguing story.

There are some very polarised reviews of Hugo, especially in North America. I don’t think it is the masterpiece that deserves to win awards but neither is it the flop that commits the sin of boredom. I think that Scorsese spent too much money ($150 million plus?) but at least you can see it on screen. I’d urge any doubters to see the film in 3D in a big screen cinema if you can still find it. It’s perhaps the first production to really explore what 3D in modern cinema can do.