Glory (Slava, Bulgaria-Greece 2016)

‘Linesman’ on the railway, Tzanko (Stefan Denolyubov)

This is the second of a loose trilogy of Bulgarian films about social issues in one of the newer member countries of the EU by the team of Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. I reviewed the couple’s earlier film The Lesson (2014) here. The second film follows the first in looking for ideas in local newspaper stories which are then used as a stimulus for developing more complex dramas. The first film seemed to me a social realist drama which used some familiar genre tropes at certain moments. I thought this second film was slightly different in bringing together two central characters whose stories mesh in interesting ways and which was mostly coherent in engaging with genre ideas. I’d need to go back to the first film to check, but it might be that the camerawork by Krum Rodriguez is this time ‘looser’ with hand-held shallow focus in the modern style rather than the ‘documentary observation’ of The LessonSome of the same crew and the two principal actors reappear from the first film.

The punning title needs translating to reveal its significance. It refers to both the recognition of a ‘hero’ in the tradition of the worker-heroes of the era under communism and to the object which is used to represent that recognition – a traditional Russian wristwatch with the brand-name ‘Slava’ or ‘Glory’. The worker in this case is Tzanko Petrov, a ‘linesman’ on the railway who checks the track and in particular the rails and their attachment to the sleepers. One day he discovers a pile of banknotes lying on the track. He quickly decides to alert the police. This action is brought to the attention of the ministry of transport and in particular the energetic and relentless Julia Staykova, the head of public relations. She immediately begins a media campaign which will see Tzanko summoned to Sofia where the minister will present him with a new watch. But Tzanko is not ideal PR material. He is a loner with a speech impediment. Julia herself is also distracted by her own personal issues and in particular her current infertility treatment. Added to this is the context of corruption in the operation of the railways – the reason why celebrating Tzanko’s public-spirited action is so important for good PR.

Trousers must be exchanged on the orders of Julia (Margita Gosheva, left)!

Out of this promising mixture of narrative threads Grozeva and Valchanov have created a black comedy which works on many levels, shifting from moments of near farce (more trousers being dropped for non-sexual reasons than I’ve seen for a long time) to sometimes quite sad and sometimes quite brutal episodes. There is an open ending, but one with little hope that all will end well.

Julia Staykova is played by Margita Gosheva, the teacher from The Lesson and again she gives an excellent performance as the driven Julia. Stefan Denolyubov, the moneylender in The Lesson unrecognisable behind long hair and a wild beard, plays Tzanko. His is an equally good performance in a role which, like Gosheva’s, requires a wide range of skills. In the Press Book on the New Wave Film website, the directors suggest that they first thought of the PR boss as a man. I was surprised because in the UK I tend to assume PR people are very often women. I think they made the right decision in the end.

The EU does play a role in the narrative, if only because the corruption on the railways might cause problems for future EU support which is being discussed in the background as the events unfold. Otherwise the main social issue in the film is perhaps the extent to which traditional (or perhaps ‘pre-1990’) Bulgarian society is coping with global modernity, whether it is mobile phones being answered in the fertility clinic in the midst of consultations with a doctor or the frantic attempts of a TV crew to present the best image of the railways in an online news report. Tzanko is a little behind these changes as a rural worker, though possibly only because he still has a human touch. Crucially it is the loss of his Russian watch with the engraving on the back representing his father’s love that he really cares about.

There were just a couple of puzzling moments in the film. At one point a prostitute appears and I wasn’t sure why. And the infertility treatment baffled me as I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. Otherwise I was engaged throughout. I watched the film in a new cinema, part of a multi-purpose arts centre. The disadvantage I discovered was that the removable seating (to convert the venue for theatre and music events) creaked and groaned as people came in late and I lost concentration during the opening scenes. I’m increasingly concerned by the new kinds of auditoria that are being opened – I haven’t yet ventured into an Everyman or an Odeon de Luxe with squidgy sofas and tables. Oh, how I pine for the artplex in Nimes with a comfortable seat, complete darkness and no distractions! Still I was grateful to see Glory in one of the handful of venues to risk a subtitled film in the ‘Awards’ season. Don’t miss it if it comes your way – this director couple have real talent.

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Tiger Zinda Hai (Tiger is Alive, India (Hindi) 2017)

This was the major Hindi cinema release for Christmas 2017, one of the most expensive Indian productions and already a global hit. It’s a follow-up to the similarly successful Ek Tha Tiger from 2012. At the end of that film, ‘Tiger’, an Indian ‘super spy’ was assumed ‘missing’ after an incident in Cuba. This sequel sees the agent of RAW (India’s secret service) discovered living a settled family life in the Austrian Tyrol when his services are required to rescue 25 Indian nurses held captive by ISIL-style terrorists in Northern Iraq. What he doesn’t realise at first is that there are also 15 Pakistani nurses in the same predicament and Tiger’s Pakistani wife Zoya, also a ‘super spy’ agent, but for Pakistan’s ISI, is charged with getting them out.

Tiger Zinda Hai displays all the elements we might expect in a contemporary Indian blockbuster. Its narrative is built around its two major stars, Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif, re-united from the 2012 film. These two find themselves in a typical masala film in the sense that it combines elements of the family film, the romance, action picture and war combat film. In doing so it borrows from a range of well-known films and star vehicles. Tiger (Salman Khan) and Zoya (Katrina Kaif) are married spies just as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Mr & Mrs (US 2005) are married assassins hired to kill each other. Tiger and Zoya might indeed find themselves on opposite sides of a case (as they did in the earlier film). But they also have a young son, Junior, like the secret service parents in Spy Kids (US 2001). Once the action starts, Tiger becomes an amalgam of James Bond, Jason Bourne and Superman – while Zoya is more akin to a Michelle Yeoh or Bridget Lin in a Hong Kong action flic. Hindi cinema has always been keen on importing ideas from Hollywood and Hong Kong but I’m sure there are also homegrown Indian models I haven’t seen. I am well aware, however, that Indian cinema has had ‘action women’ since at least the 1940s.

There are several interesting aspects of the narrative. The idea of Indian and Pakistani agents fighting together against terrorists in the current climate is perhaps a fantasy, but still an intriguing prospect. It’s also novel (in the UK) to see a narrative about the continued fighting in Iraq which doesn’t take the American or European perspective. (The Americans are portrayed as not altogether trustworthy in this film.) Ironically, the film was shot mainly in the UAE which has a significant population of Indian migrant workers (a third of the local population?) mainly from Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The UAE is also a market for Indian films. How many Indian migrant workers are in Iraq is less straightforward to quantify. News reports about stranded migrant workers have been numerous, but mostly in construction rather than the oil industry. The city where the nurses are held is given as ‘Ikrit’ – presumably a fictitious version of Tikrit (the birthplace of Sadam Hussein). The villain in the film is the terrorist leader played by Sajjad Delafrooz, an actor born in Iran but now living in the UAE. He’s very effective I think. I’d like to comment on the actors playing Americans but IMDb’s cast list seems to omit most of them. They seemed OK and certainly better than many of the Anglos in Indian films.

The traditional masala film in the 1970s-90s had six or seven lavish song and dance sequences. Tiger Zinda Hai still has songs but one is used for the closing credits (and is performed in a Greek island setting). Only one other song actually stops the narrative as such – a love song in the Tyrolean setting. I can’t remember much about the other four.

Since this franchise is built around its two stars, it’s necessary to think about how Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif perform. Since I haven’t see them in anything else except the first Tiger film (and in Kaif’s case as a fantasy figure in one episode in Bombay Talkies), I’m dependent on news reports and trailers for other films. Salman Khan is a big star, perhaps only just behind Aamir Khan and Sharukh Khan in the rankings. His persona is very much as the muscle man and in this film he does rip off his shirt at one point to display his physique. My impression is that he has put on more bulk since the first Tiger film. He is also said to be quite a short man (various claims are made but he’s probably about 5′ 6” – the other two major stars are not much taller). This makes Salman Khan almost square but his movements are impressive. I thought he was fine in his role and gave his fans what they want. Katrina Kaif was much more impressive than I expected her to be. Her career was dogged in the beginning by claims that she was ‘inauthentic’. She was born in Hong Kong to an English mother and British Kashmiri father and lived in various countries before settling in London where she was ‘discovered’ by a British-based Indian filmmaker when working as a model. Brought to India she continued modelling and featured in several films but was hindered by her lack of Hindi language skills. Her Tiger performances have helped to establish her properly (especially since both films have made substantial profits). I was most impressed by her athleticism – I believed that her character could perform the action moves. She is tall (certainly taller than Salman Khan) and lithe and she dances well. I will certainly consider watching her future films. As it turned out, I watched the first Tiger film, the day after watching the second. (There is a post on Ek Tha Tiger (2012) here.) I think I actually prefer the first film because it has more romance and fewer explosions. The second film is also 20+ minutes longer under a different director, Ali Abbas Zafar. He also wrote and directed Salman Khan’s 2016 blockbuster, Sultan, a genuine muscle-man flic on the basis of the trailer.

Hostiles (US 2017)

Rosalee (Rosamund Pike) and Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), looking glum – as they might in the circumstances

Sometimes I feel sorry for film reviewers. If you have to respond with a tight deadline to watching a film like Hostiles it must be very difficult. Here is a film which is beautifully presented with some excellent performances but also with a very iffy script and some equally questionable didactic urges. Do you slam the film or try to justify it? An experienced reviewer like Philip Kemp in Sight and Sound (January 2018) can just about get away with a negative response slightly sweetened by discussion of the good points. But I’ve also seen some 10/10 user reviews on IMDb. I confess that I was a little suspicious when the ads for the film in the UK quoted glowing reviews from several publications I didn’t recognise.

Fortunately, I don’t have to score the film. Instead, I’ll try to explain what I think it’s doing and what the problems are. However, I am intrigued by the US companies who financed this $40 million independent film. It was picked up by Entertainment Film Distributors for selected UK multiplexes but I fear that its pacing alone will deter the popcorn crowd.

Wes Studi as Yellow Hawk tries to give advice about dealing with Comanche rebels

The first issue with the film is its location in the history of the West and the Western. We are supposedly in 1892 in New Mexico, which seems rather late to be dealing with Comanche rebels and a journey to escort a Cheyenne warrior and his family from prison in the South West to his homeland in Montana after seven years in captivity. The prisoner is Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) who has terminal cancer and the escort is to be led by a reluctant veteran ‘Indian fighter’, Captain Blocker (Christian Bale) on a last mission before his retirement. Soon after the party leaves the fort, they come across Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), the only survivor of a raid by those Comanche rebels on a settler family’s homestead. The party will gather (and lose) members as it encounters various groups on its way to Montana and a final showdown. The party that left the fort included a ‘Buffalo soldier’, another hard-bitten Indian hunter, a raw French recruit and a greenhorn Lieutenant – a generic grouping for a Western narrative. The whole set-up seemed wrong in terms of historical period to me and when I came across some pre-publicity for the film which dated the events as 1882 that made more sense. To put this in context, the major battle of Little Big Horn and its consequences covers the period from 1876 to 1881 (the Northern Cheyenne fought with the Lakota of Sitting Bull). After that the focus on the final acts of the Indian Wars was on the Apache and the tribes of the South West.

Rosalee (who has lost her family to Comanche rebels) becomes protector of Cheyenne women and child

But perhaps this doesn’t matter. Much more important is the exploration of the guilt of the coloniser which in this film seems to be represented in ways which are perhaps easily dismissed as anachronistic. Several of the (white) characters seem to perform an abrupt volte face, switching from hatred of ‘savages’ to true respect for Cheyenne culture. These questions are the fulcrum for readings of the film which veer from condemnation for being too politically correct and turning away from the genre towards being accepting of our contemporary views and a denial of historical perspective. The film takes itself very seriously and is in many ways wedded to gloom. It begins with a D. H. Lawrence quote about the American soul – “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted” (Studies in Classic American Literature, 1923). Characters discuss their faith and one concludes that “God is blind” to what has happened in the West. Before I saw the film, somebody described it as violent. Many people are killed in the film, but not as many as in some other Hollywood action pictures. It is the film’s own seriousness (emphasised by sparse and spare dialogue and a Max Richter score) which gives the deaths a proper importance in the narrative.

The film is written, directed and produced by Scott Cooper. I did see Cooper’s first film, the country music romance Crazy Heart (US 2010), but not his next two, Out of the Furnace (2013) and Black Mass (2015). Reading reviews, it would appear that Cooper is interested in strong character-driven narratives with a measured pace (Cooper was first an actor). He certainly uses genre narratives but appears not want to consciously work with or against genre expectations. On this basis, the meaning of Hostiles is to be found in Christian Bale’s character (Bale was also the lead in Out of the Furnace). But in relation to a genre as deeply embedded in the American psyche as the Western, Bale’s character is inevitably going to be read in terms of specific earlier Westerns and their characters. On this score, Cooper, in an interview with MovieMaker magazine seems to be confused in his understanding of the Western and what he is trying to achieve (though the interview is not well sub-edited):

I don’t think much in terms of genre . . . while it is set in the American West, in 1892, I wanted it to be more about a human journey, a psychological journey. If anything it’s a psychological western in the vein of Anthony Mann. There were a couple of shots where I paid homage to John Ford’s The Searchers. I don’t think it’s a western, it has more in common with Joseph Conrad or Larry McMurtry or Louis L’Amour.

It’s that last part that baffles me. Perhaps he said “Conrad not McMurtry or L’Amour”, since the latter are two of the best-known writers of Western novels.

The five soldiers who start the journey. “Who will survive?” might be the genre question.

At this point I should state that the real strength of the film is the cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi who worked on earlier films by Cooper and also Spotlight, the 2015 Best Picture Oscar winner. Here in an interview he recounts how he and Cooper worked only on location and how he changed film stock to deal with dramatic changes in weather conditions. The results are stunning and they immediately lead us to think about Anthony Mann Westerns and possibly the Peckinpah of Ride the High Country (1962). But as Cooper suggests, the central emotional trigger is John Wayne’s performance as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956). Cooper even goes as far as claiming that the end of his film in some way responds to the famous ending of The Searchers. I won’t spoil what happens in Cooper’s film. It is interesting, but doesn’t have the power of Ford’s ending. Ethan Edwards is one of the great creations of the Hollywood Western. As Martin Scorsese says about him, he’s not a villain but he’s despicable. Ethan’s hatred of the Comanche is deeply rooted but it is accompanied by cultural knowledge about his enemy. He can keep his anger under control when faced with Martin Pawley and his own niece Lucy, both of whom are ‘tainted’ in his eyes by their links to Native Americans. But control is not enough to allow Ethan back into the American family/community. He remains as the French title of the film suggests, a ‘Prisoner of the Desert’.

Here is what Cooper says about his narrative (the script was worked up from an original by Donald E. Stewart, a well-known screenwriter who died in 1999:

I placed the action from New Mexico to Montana. It would allow me to speak to what’s happening in America today, in terms of race. The racial divide in our country is widening. We’re living in polarized times, and I wanted to speak to this notion that we need to better understand one another and to reconcile. I think America needs to heal. My characters’ journey from New Mexico to Montana becomes an enlightenment. I wanted to speak to what I see is an America looming down a dark and dangerous path.

Blocker at the Cheyenne burial ground. Like Ethan Edwards, he knows something of his enemy’s culture – and his language

Ethan Edwards in 1956 was a complex character stirring up questions about race and racial difference in an America still to experience the full force of Civil Rights. Bale’s Captain Blocker faces similar questions in 2017 when America is a very different (but still conflicted) society. I don’t feel that Blocker, as written, can carry or express the emotions that Cooper has in mind. Here is a final extract from Cooper’s interview, in response to those comments about the violence in the film:

. . . the American West, while majestic, was very violent. As wars generally begin, it’s all about resources and land. The United States government was trying to impose its will on Indigenous peoples. There is a dark and unforgivable past of attempted genocide. I wanted the movie to be punctuated by moments of extreme violence. I abhor violence, but these very violent and vivid encounters on the road end up informing the characters emotionally and psychologically in a way that really spoke to the difficulties in trying to achieve Manifest Destiny.

‘Manifest Destiny’ was the belief in the United States that ‘Americans’ (i.e. of white European stock) were destined to spread across the United States, settling the land and creating a free society which persecution had denied them or their forefathers in Europe. This would inevitably mean annexing the lands of Native Americans. Ironically, in 1892 when Captain Blocker’s orders come directly from Republican President Benjamin Harrison, the Republican platform for the November presidential election re-affirmed a belief in that ‘Manifest Destiny’ which was beginning to fade. The Republicans lost the election but returned in 1896 when the ‘Western frontier’ was effectively ‘civilised’. American expansionism then turned overseas to the Spanish-American Wars and the pursuit of American power across the rest of the Americas.

I think my final thoughts are that Scott Cooper may be sincere in what he is attempting, but that he is trying to do too much and perhaps he needs to spend more time watching Westerns. But then is possibly better to attempt too much rather than to succumb to the limited aims of much of contemporary American filmmaking. I was never bored by Hostiles and those landscapes are amazing. The trailer below does include a ‘Searchers moment’ and some of the terrific ‘figures in a landscape’ cinematography.

English Hitchcock: Young and Innocent (UK 1937)

(from left) Edward Rigby, Nova Pilbeam, Derrick De Marney and Percy Marmont

Alfred Hitchcock’s films made in the UK in the 1930s have tended to be overshadowed to some extent by his later work in Hollywood, even if some of the titles have gained a high profile after repeated UK TV screenings. The key text for film scholars is Charles Barr’s English Hitchcock (Movie Books, Cameron and Hollis, 1999). Young and Innocent is seen as the odd one out in the series of six successful thrillers Hitchcock made between 1934 and 1938. It is the only one that doesn’t focus on some form of political intrigue. On the other hand it does share elements with several of the other films. What marks it out for me is the terrific performance by Nova Pilbeam, the ‘young’ of the title, who was still only 17 when shooting began. The original title for the film, which was subsequently used for the North American release was The Girl Was Young – a dreadful title in my view and quite misleading. Like many Hitchcock films this one was based on a novel. A Shilling for Candles (1936) was one of the first crime fiction novels by Josephine Tey. She later became a celebrated writer of crime fiction as well as plays and other novels. Barr is quite scathing about the novel and it seems that most of it was changed by Charles Bennett and the other writers who worked on the screenplay. Nova Pilbeam’s character is elevated from a minor character to joint lead.

A vibrant young couple?

The plot is instantly recognisable because of resemblances to The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935). Pilbeam is Erica, the daughter of the Chief Constable of a South of England county police force, who by chance meets a young man, Robert Tinsdall (Derrick De Marney), who has been arrested on suspicion of the murder of a woman on a nearby secluded beach. He protests his innocence (thus the second half of the title) and events lead Erica to help him escape. Along the way they fall for each other but they have no time to get well acquainted as the police are chasing them and Robert must find a vital piece of evidence – and this might in turn help the couple find the murderer. The film is entertaining and engaging because of the skills of Hitchcock and his team which includes future Ealing director Charles Frend as editor, Bernard Knowles as DoP and the great Alfred Junge as art director. Pilbeam’s future husband Pen Tennyson (also to become an Ealing director) is listed as Assistant Director. But I think that a great deal of the vitality of the film comes from the pairing of Pilbeam and De Marney. I was struck by something about Nova Pilbeam that reminded me of Keira Knightley’s early lead roles in Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and Pirates of the Caribbean (2003). De Marney was actually aged 30 when filming began but, as Barr suggests, he seems younger. They seem a very ‘modern’ couple for the 1930s.

Erica looks for clues about a piece of evidence at ‘Tom’s Hat’ transport ‘caff’

Unfortunately, the vitality of the film is let down at various times by the cheap studio production work. This was a Gaumont-British production, based initially at Shepherd’s Bush, but also at Pinewood. Barr reports a suggestion that the leading cast members might have been on location only rarely since in the outdoor scenes the characters are mainly seen in long shot. Given the results that Junge was able to achieve ten years later in his evocation of the Himalayas filmed in Surrey for Black Narcissus, I do wonder what he made of the model work, especially in the case of the railway station which becomes the location for an exciting chase sequence. The film’s pre-publicity made a lot of noise about the use of location work and Hitchcock generally uses it well. There is also a striking crane shot on the large studio set representing the dancefloor of the ‘Grand Hotel’ where the narrative climax plays out (in a manner something like the music hall ending of The 39 Steps). This sequence is notable for the band whose members are ‘blacked up’ even though they are dressed in lounge suits rather than minstrel outfits. The jazz band is quite good and I was reminded of the best Jessie Matthews musicals of the 1930s. British cinema could match Hollywood at times, but the lack of resources meant that something often had to be skimped. The extras on the DVD from Network include an intro by Charles Barr and a short documentary on Hitchcock. One of the contributors suggests that what attracted Hitchcock to move to Hollywood was the prospect of the resources to do all the things his imagination could dream up.

It’s striking how strong Nova Pilbeam’s performance is. For one so young she commands her scenes like a much more experienced actor. Wikipedia suggests that David Selznik, who would eventually sign a deal with Hitchcock in 1939, was very impressed with Pilbeam and wanted to sign her as well but her agent thought a five-year contract was not appropriate. She didn’t go to Hollywood and instead made several more British pictures as well as working in the theatre. Her career ended in 1950 when she was still a young woman. The decision not to go to America (a similar decision was made by Jessie Matthews, for similar ‘professional reasons’) was later faced by bigger stars such as Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons, who both went and made a success of the move. Erica does seem to me to be a character who has equal ‘agency’ with Robert. It would be interesting to compare the role with that played by Margaret Lockwood in The Lady Vanishes (1938).

I was surprised to discover that it is Donald Spoto in his Hitchcock biography The Dark Side of Genius, Frederick Muller 1983, who gives a more interesting reading of the film than Charles Barr. Barr focuses mainly on narrative structure but Spoto offers various observations that convince me that his general argument is sound. His basic point is that the film is essentially a gentle comic melodrama, but that it offers ‘markers’ for some of the dramatic highlights of later Hitchcock triumphs and that ideas about illusion and not ‘seeing’ clearly are woven throughout the narrative. So Robert escapes police custody by wearing a pair of spectacles with thick lenses through which he can barely see but which form a good disguise. At the end of the film, the murderer is ‘unmasked’ by the tic he suffers which makes him blink uncontrollably. Spoto reports Hitchcock stating that he placed a children’s birthday party at the centre of the story to act as a symbol as well as a narrative device. The children blindfold a character which allows the central couple to escape the party. This ‘play acting’ is matched by a couple of occasions when characters don a uniform or a costume to pass as somebody else. In terms of ‘markers’ the film includes some interesting set pieces carefully shot on sound stages that perhaps suggest scenes in later Hollywood films like North by Northwest (1959) and The Birds (1962). If you haven’t seen it, Young and Innocent is well worth tracking down. I watched it on Network’s DVD, a Special Edition as part of ‘Hitchcock: The British Years’.

Witnesses (Les témoins, France 2014- )

Sandra (Marie Dompnier) and Justin (Jan Hammenecker) find a bus filled with frozen male corpses as passengers at the start of WITNESSES season 2

Witnesses is a global crime/mystery series in the now familiar long-form narrative format. It has inevitably been compared to various other examples of what is becoming a global model, derived from the success of The Killing and The Bridge. Like the Scandinavian serials, the second season was broadcast on BBC4 in the UK ending a few weeks ago. (Season 1 was broadcast on Channel 4.) The key common element is a pair of police investigators in which the woman is the lead figure. What makes Witnesses ‘different’, at least in the first two seasons/series/serials, is the setting and the inclusion of some of the tropes of the horror film.

The location is Northern France. The police team is based in Lille and the action seems to range across the whole Nord-Pas de Calais region with an emphasis on the coast in both series. In fact, the action spreads all the way to Mont-Saint-Michel and Granville in Normandy several hundred kilometres away. The distances are so great that they detract from the realism of some of the plot devices, but conversely heighten the fantasy elements. Some of the Scandinavian narratives make use of similar settings but it occurred to me that Witnesses might also share something with the Welsh serial Hinterland. A second possible reference for me was the stories of Fred Vargas whose crime novels have the same mystery elements and sometimes use similar locations (e.g. by the coast or in rural Normandy). Although Vargas has been adapted in France, I’m not aware of any overseas sales.

The two central characters are Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier) and Justin (Jan Hammenecker). Sandra is the typical ‘maverick’ cop and Justin is the more stable partner who is generally in the background , but whose personal life is also explored. Each of the two seasons so far features a similar credit sequence with Sandra striding towards the camera along a ‘boardwalk’ past a row of bathing huts. She then reaches a dilapidated hut which blocks her path and she opens its doors to reveal a fantasy figure. In the first season this is a wolf (see below) and in the second three strange children. The music in the title sequence by the UK ‘trip-hop’ artist Tricky with Francesca Belmonte has an ethereal tone which underlines the potential fantasy of the stories. The song’s title is ‘We Don’t Die’ and the lyrics fit the stories so well I’m intrigued to see what the writer-creators Marc Herpoux and Hervé Hadmar (who also directs) will come up with next. The first story begins with the discovery of the corpses of people recently buried but now dug up and arranged in family groups in public places such as a show house on a new estate. As Sandra investigates she uncovers a connection to her former boss in Lille who has become something of a local celebrity.

In Season 2, the story begins with the discovery of a bus parked on a country road. Inside the bus are 15 frozen corpses of men who disappeared some time ago. Eventually the investigation will uncover a complex interweaving of stories which will eventually entrap Sandra herself and in which she will team up with a woman who herself disappeared and is then discovered three years later, unable to remember what happened to her. This is Catherine Keemer, rather confusingly played by the wonderful Audrey Fleurot, the rather tempestuous lawyer from Engrenages (Spiral). My confusion was because Series 6 of Engrenages followed Witnesses a week later on BBC4 and I found myself ‘catching up’ on Witnesses while watching the first episodes of Engrenages. Sandra and Catherine end up sleuthing together in Witnesses and a rather stylish couple they make – two tall, slim, thirty-somethings with flowing tresses and a similar dress sense.

Catherine (Audrey Fleurot) and Sandra (Marie Dompnier) together

Apart from the characterisation around Sandra and Catherine, there two noticeable aspects of this second narrative which distinguish it from similar series. First are the aesthetics, dominated by occasional uses of aerial shots of the coast and forests of the region, the cinematography in general and the use of music, the overall effect of which is to create a sense of mystery and unease. Ironically, there is a sense of the romantic and the gothic, even when action takes place around a wind farm. The mystery/horror tropes are signified in several ways, all of which take us into the complex plotting around the history of an orphanage located on Mont Saint-Michel. This is a great location (and a world heritage site). The best recent orphanage narrative is arguably El orfanato (Spain 2007) and this one uses some of the same tropes with drawings by children and photographs from some time ago. The children seem to have been fascinated by the story of the Minotaur. The focus on children also draws in both Catherine and Sandra. Catherine is close to her eldest child, a young teenage daughter and Sandra has two younger daughters. I won’t spoil the plot any further but the links seem clear as well as the dangers for the two women. I’m always intrigued by the ways in which these kinds of crime narratives share sometimes quite specific plot ideas and details with others released around the same time. Witnesses reminded me of elements in both Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman (2017) and the UK TV series The Fall (2013- ). Witnesses is a female-centred narrative created, written and directed by men. That’s just an observation, but I’m now intrigued by Engrenages 6 in which Audrey Fleurot is again a leading character in a narrative with Caroline Proust as top-billed – but with a largely male supporting cast. Gender is clearly an issue in the episodes I’ve seen so far and perhaps it’s time to think again about gender and crime fiction?

I enjoyed Witnesses but I think it was too long (8 x 1 hour episodes) and too complicated. By the end I had forgotten elements of the first two episodes and I’m not sure I fully appreciated the narrative resolution. The first season was only six episodes and that seemed right.

Yojimbo (Japan 1961)

This is a classic samurai film and enjoys the talents of two stars: filmmaker Kurosawa Akira and actor Mifune Toshiro. Both bring their special talents to an entertaining and exciting action movie. Like much of their work the film has been remade several times, including as a spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and as a Hollywood prohibition/action film, Last Man Standing (1996).

The film is set in 1860, just prior to the Meiji period and the rise of modern Japan. Mifune plays a ronin, that is a masterless samurai whose traditional functions have vanished and who takes on whatever work he can find. In this case in a small town he is offered work as a bodyguard (the English sense of the title) by rival merchants. The merchants are the emerging class in this period, but here they rely more on criminality than trade, forerunners of the modern Yakusa.

The main character and the film’s story are strongly sardonic. The opening sequence shows our hero passed by a dog carrying a severed hand. And the violence implied here is a central right through the film.

The cinematographer on the film was Miyagawa Kazuo. He had worked with Kurosawa on the earlier Rashomon (1950) as well as with other major directors like Mizoguchi Kenji and Ozu Yasujirô. As in some of the director’s other films Kurosawa and Miyagawa make great use of the telephoto lens. There is a depth of field in the shots, but a rather flat image as the action is foreshortened. Among the distinctive editing techniques, performed by Kurosawa himself, are frequent wipes, a technique rarely seen in post-war (WWII) cinema. And the music track by Satô Masaru uses distinctive instrumentation including wood blocks.

Kurosawa had set up his own production company. The first film was a variation on Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, The Bad Sleep Well / Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (1960). Mifune was the lead actor. Yojimbo was the second film from the company . Both film were also scripted by Kurosawa.

The film was popular in Japan and Kurosawa made a sequel titled with the character’s name, Sanjuro (1962). Once again Mifune played the lead. Yojimbo had a relatively large international release and has remained a regular title for revivals over the years. On its initial release in the Britain the BBFC gave it an ‘A’ Certificate.

The film’s format was black and white TohoScope. almost identical to CinemaScope with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1: with Perspecta Stereo sound., Now Hebden Bridge Picture House are screening the film in their ‘reel film’ series on Saturday January 6th. So it can be seen in its original 35mm format: what a treat.

The Square (Sweden-France-Germany-Denmark 2017)

This title opened the 2017 Leeds International Film Festival. It was screened in a fairly packed Victoria auditorium at Leeds Town Hall. This has a large well placed screen for the occasion and the illumination levels are suitably low; though you get extraneous light when people enter or leave during the feature. The acoustics are less favourable, especially for dialogue. This feature offers Swedish, English and Danish with part sub-titles. Presumably because of the English dialogue the soundtrack was fairly loud but one could manage.

The film itself won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. I am not totally convinced by the Jury’s choice but I could see why the film received the award. It was written and directed by Ruben Östlund whose Force Majeure was one of the stand-out releases in 2014. The bad news for those who enjoyed the earlier title is that Fox have acquired ‘remake rights’.

The Square is a worthy follow-up and the style and themes of the film are recognisably similar. However, I thought this title lacked the tight focus and some of the subtlety of the predecessor though I found the ending stronger. This is rather like a picaresque novel as it follows the travails of a curator of a museum devoted to contemporary art in Stockholm. One nice touch is that the museum is called ‘X-Royal’ because it is sited alongside and uses part of  the original Royal Palace.

In the course of the narrative we follow Christian (Claes Bang) at work and outside of the museum. And we meet a range of other characters including his managers and colleagues, his children from a separated marriage and the privileged members of the ‘Friends of the Museum’. The Museum and its patrons are the main target in a feature that is predominately satire. The museum elite and the patrons are holders of what French intellectual Pierre Bourdieu termed ‘cultural capital’. And the film draws a contrast between these members or hangers-on of the bourgeoisie and a range of characters from the lower depths of the working class, possessing literally no or minimal cultural capital.

Some powerful and at times sardonic sequences in the film focus on this class conflict. And Christian’s metaphorical journey in the film appears to be designed to accomplish something similar in audiences. So the film veers between almost slapstick humour, sometimes heavy-handed satire and emotive dramatic moments. It is a long film, 140 minutes. I do not think it is too long but in the weaker moments I was conscious of the length. A member of the audience opined that

‘the film tried to include too much’.

I think this is accurate but it is also that the film has too many targets whereas Force Majeure limited itself effectively to gender and family contradictions. The Square reminded me of the 2016 festival entry Tony Erdmann. Both films follow a picaresque form, both are partly satirical partly dramatic; and both target aspect of European political culture. But both are scripted by the director and I think a specialist scriptwriter would have improved the work. It is the sort of film that Jean Claude Carriere would have been good on.

The film is very well produced. The cast are excellent. Even in some of the more bizarre scenes they are completely convincing. The technical aspects are extremely well done in terms of settings, cinematography, sound and editing. The last named technique uses abrupt cuts frequently positioning the audience to fill in an ellipsis and its consequences. The production team are especially good at the use of stairwells, two finely presented settings. The title was shot on the Codex digital system and on Alexa cameras. It is distributed in a 2K DCP which looks fine.

It is a film I think I will see again. It goes on general release via Curzon (who follow somewhat restrictive practices) in 2018. It has a couple of genuinely shocking sequences. The BBFC have not released their certification yet but I would expect it to receive a ’15’.

An alternative view of 2017

Lily Gladstone in CERTAIN WOMEN, a film, a theme and a location which somehow represents 2017’s films for me

Keith has already posted his review of the films of 2017. I agree with many of his picks, but disagree on a couple and want to list a few different titles.

It was a strange year for me in the sense that I was overseas for nearly a month in February/March and most of what was on offer were ‘awards movies’. I also missed the Glasgow Film Festival which in the last few years has provided me with access to ‘festival films’ I might have missed. On the other hand it has been a good year for festivals at HOME in Manchester. Somehow, I still managed to watch over 100 films in the cinema and many more on DVD/download. Here are my highlights:

Most overrated films of the year

La La Land and Dunkirk (2017)

These were two of the most lauded and most discussed films of the year.  Neither of them are ‘bad’ films and both have many good points to recommend them. Yet, overall, they didn’t move me or suggest that they deserved prizes. I saw La La Land in Canada with a large and appreciative audience a few weeks after it opened and all I can think is that they might never have seen or might have forgotten what a classic MGM musical might be like. As for Dunkirk, I might have felt differently if I hadn’t first seen the 1958 version of the story and explored documentary material. I suspect that the spectacular nature of the film, especially on IMAX/70mm screens was far more important for some audiences than the meanings the film generated.

Mainstream films of the year

Hidden Figures, Their FinestGirls Trip and Get Out

It is significant that the four mainstream films I’ve chosen include three African-American films and three films with women as the central characters – the two key issues in 2017’s film releases.

Two outstanding films about North American life

Maudie (Canda-Ireland 2017) and Certain Women (US 2016)

These two, very different, films were both directed by women. Both explore women’s lives in specific regions of respectively, Maritime Canada and America’s Mid-West. Neither found a large audience but I suspect that those who did see them enjoyed them very much.

European film of the year

Frantz (France-Germany 2016)

I thought this was an astonishing film. There were plenty of other European films I enjoyed but also several I was unable to find in cinemas or that haven’t yet been released in the UK.

British films of the year

Lady Macbeth and God’s Own Country

Lady Macbeth seems to have divided audiences, including my colleagues. I don’t understand why. Alongside the magnificent God’s Own Country it has figured prominently in both British and European awards competitions. These two début films give me hope for British cinema.

Asian releases of the year

Mountains May Depart (China-Japan-France 2015) and Newton (India 2017)

It is getting harder to see important films coming out of South and East Asia at the cinema and I’ve chosen two films here from the handful of titles I was able to see. There was also another Koreeda film this year, After the Storm (Japan 2016) which was up to the same high standard this master has established. I also enjoyed many of the films in HOME’s ‘Not Just Bollywood‘ programme.

Archive films of the year

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (West Germany 1975) and State of Siege (France-Italy-West Germany 1972)

Cloud-Capped Star (India, Bengal 1960)

Overall, I would have to concede that this year I have been more interested in the archive programming provided via HOME’s ‘States of Danger and Deceit‘ and also the archive elements of other HOME seasons and festivals. I wish there were more current films that matched the artistry and intensity of these archive gems.

Festival film of the year

The Rider (US 2017)

I hope this gets a UK release soon. It matches Maudie and Certain Women in its vibrant presentation of the local in North America.

Animation film

Your Name (Japan 2016)

The success of this film (and The Red Turtle) gives me some hope that anime will finally get established in the UK. I just hope we can still get to see the Japanese versions in cinemas.

The films I missed that I wish I had seen

The Levelling (UK 2017), I Am Not Your Negro (US 2016)

I’ll try to find these two on DVD at some point in 2018.

December has been terrible in UK cinemas with nothing but family films and mainstream blockbusters on offer and now we await the usual flood of American ‘awards films’. We’ll be struggling to find the foreign language releases and then looking forward to festivals such as Glasgow in February.