Category: Films for children

A Monster Calls (Spain-US-UK 2016)

Conor and the monster

Conor and the monster

Here’s a good example of an ‘international film’. Siobhan Ward, an Irish writer of children’s books, has an idea for a story while she is dangerously ill. She agrees to write it as a novel but doesn’t live long enough and her British publisher commissions Patrick Ness, an American living in the UK, to write the novel. Ness then adapts the story for a film by a Spanish production company. The Spanish director and mainly Spanish crew make the film in Spain, the UK and the US/Canada with a cast that is mainly British and with all the exteriors shot in Lancashire. This English language film then becomes the biggest box office success in Spain in 2016 (possibly dubbed?). This is the background to A Monster Calls.

Conor and his mum (Felicity Jones

Conor and his mum (Felicity Jones

Conor and his strict grandma (Sigourney Weaver)

Conor and his strict grandma (Sigourney Weaver)

This is a fantasy film, not the kind of film I see very often – unless it is a foreign language film. I wanted to see A Monster Calls because it is directed by J. A. Bayona, whose first film was the wonderful El orfanato (The Orphanage, Spain 2007). There are some obvious connections between the two films, including an appearance by Geraldine Chaplin who links Bayona’s films to the history of child protagonists in films made under Franco’s censorship (Chaplin appears in Cria cuervos, made by her then partner Carlos Saura in 1976). Franco’s censorship allowed only certain kinds of films to be made and those with child stars were assumed (falsely) to be the least subversive. Ana Torrent was the child star in Cria cuervos as she was in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Along with the two Guillermo del Toro films The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), these are all films in which children engage with different forms of horror/fantasy – and always for an understanding of the adult world in which their stories explore metaphorical meanings. (Guillermo del Toro ‘presented’ El orfanato, but he is not involved in A Monster Calls.) A Monster Calls draws on a similar British/Irish tradition of children’s fantasy going back to Louis Carroll’s Alice and now found in numerous recent novels and stories (I haven’t seen any of them, but I’m sure you can make your own list). Conor (the brilliant Lewis MacDougall) is a 13 year-old boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is seriously ill. Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell) has remarried and gone to live in Los Angeles, so Conor is effectively his mother’s carer. Sigourney Weaver plays his rather stern grandmother who takes over whenever things get too difficult, but Conor struggles to respond to her. For fairly obvious reasons, Conor is lonely and isolated at school and is bullied. Every night he has a nightmare which wakes him at a specific time. It is in one of these sleeping/waking moments that he first meets the ‘monster’, a fearsome ‘tree-man’ who steps forth from the yew tree across the valley. In the deep rumbling voice of Liam Neeson, the monster follows fairy tale traditions by announcing that he will tell Conor three tales on different nights and that Conor will then be required to respond with his own tale. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative if you don’t already know the story.

Conor and the yew tree with the South Pennine moors in the background

Conor and the yew tree with the South Pennine moors in the background

The director’s second film, The Impossible (Spain-US 2012) was an English language ‘action melodrama’ set during the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and he is clearly happy directing in English. The elements that he adds to the original story are an increased emphasis on Conor’s interest and skill in drawing/painting and also various references to the ‘monsters’ of classic movies. When his mother drags out a 16mm film projector, she laces up King Kong (1933) and Conor watches the trials of the monster with real concern. Later there is a brief glimpse of a model of the Frankenstein monster from 1930 (which might be a reference to The Spirit of the Beehive). I haven’t yet discovered why the shoot was based around the South Pennines, mainly on the Lancashire side but with some scenes shot in Marsden and Huddersfield in Yorkshire. This moorland landscape has a distinctive feel and it can be evocative of religious fervour and ‘dark’ goings on. On the Northern side of the region lies the glowering mass of Pendle, famed for the arrest and trial of the ‘Lancashire witches’ in the 17th century. I’ve seen some critics refer to the children’s novel (and film) The Iron Man (1985) by the poet Ted Hughes as having something in common with A Monster Calls. Hughes was from Mytholmroyd in the Calder Valley a little further south-east of Pendle. At one point, I thought Calderdale was the location used in A Monster Calls and I was reminded of another slightly ‘magical film’, My Summer of Love (2014) shot on the moors above Hebden Bridge. In truth, there isn’t that much use of landscape in A Monster Calls and the church and the yew tree on the hillside opposite Conor’s window are actually CGI models (presumably in a studio in Barcelona). Even so, the locations are carefully chosen so both the school and the hospital (and the level crossing on the preserved East Lancs Railway) have that feeling of being slightly behind the times, adding to the fantasy. The scenes shot in Blackpool at the Pleasure Beach and on North Pier seem to be deliberately ‘unconventional’ (i.e. the Tower and other landmark buildings don’t appear), either because the cinematographer isn’t aware of Blackpool images or because the intention is to downplay the ‘realism’ of the sequence.

The animation sequences illustrate the stories the monster tells

The animation sequences illustrate the stories the monster tells

Bayona also decided to make use of the graphic material in the original book (illustrations by Jim Kay) and I think these are very cleverly used in relation to the stories the monster tells. The discourse of drawing/painting and use of production design again links the film to El orfanato – something I felt immediately from the opening scenes. J. A. Bayona seems to have shifted his allegiance from Guillermo del Toro to Stephen Spielberg (his next film will be an instalment of the Jurassic World franchise) but A Monster Calls still retains a Spanish feel via the creative team, including DoP Oscar Faura and composer Fernando Velázquez. I’m reminded of the earlier major success by a Spanish-language director working in English when Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (Spain-US 2001) made over $200 million worldwide. Yet Amenábar’s subsequent English language films haven’t succeeded internationally and del Toro’s English language films haven’t always perhaps been as successful as they might have been (e.g. Crimson Peak in 2015). I fear that this may also be true of A Monster Calls. In Spain the film made €27 million when it was released in October. In the UK it opened wide on over 500 screens on 6 January with very good preview numbers and a strong but not spectacular opening weekend. In North America it opened on a handful of screens on December 23rd and went wide to 1500 screens on 6 January, but barely reached the UK opening total which had a third of the screens. This opening pattern matches that (on a smaller scale) of El orfanato. North America is weakest, Spain strongest and the UK in the middle. Since the film reportedly has a $43 million production budget, these figures are quite worrying. I’m not sure why the UK and US openings were left until January 6 when the school holidays were coming to an end.

There were a minority of negative reviews and I guess the film is darker than the usual fare for younger audiences. Sigourney Weaver has been singled out in some quarters. I thought she was fine (though it is difficult to see her as Felicity Jones’ mother). Numerous UK actors would have been a better ‘fit’. Felicity Jones is now a big draw and this might have been a perfect alternative attraction to her Star Wars lead – though it isn’t a role she would have chosen in order to boost her star power. If the film has a weakness, it is perhaps in the school sequences which I think could have been explored a little more without skewing the narrative too much. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian mentions Let the Right One In (Sweden 2008). There is a link certainly, but horror fans expecting something similar would be disappointed. I think A Monster Calls stands on its own merits and I would urge you to see it for the tone and the thematic of its story, the cinematography and production design (and the sensitive use of CGI) and the terrific performance by its young lead. The trailer is quite good and illustrates many of the film’s best qualities without giving everything away:

The Eagle Huntress (UK-Mongolia-US 2016)

One of many stunning promotional shots for 'The Eagle Huntress'

One of many stunning promotional shots for ‘The Eagle Huntress’

The Eagle Huntress is an extremely engaging film with a wonderful central character, a 13 year-old girl from a traditional Kazakh community located in Western Mongolia near the Altai Mountains. For its UK release, a film first screened at Sundance has received an extra narration from Daisy Ridley, the young star of Star Wars VII – The Force Awakens, the biggest film of 2016. Ridley is now named as Executive Producer of The Eagle Huntress and helped to promote the release with a strong emphasis on the concept of ‘girl power’. The BFI also supported the release by the small independent distributor Altitude, which opened the film on just 24 screens, subsequently widened to 50. After three weekends over the Christmas period the UK box office total was just £160,000. In the US, however, after 9 weeks, and on only 122 screens at most, it has made $2.3 million. In the US, Sony Classics is the distributor and the extra muscle from a studio probably means it got into more large cinemas. I suspect that the film will have ‘legs’ in the UK and a healthy future on DVD and online. We watched it at HOME Manchester on a Saturday afternoon with a healthy audience who certainly seemed to enjoy the film – as we did too.

So far, so good. But then I started to reflect on what I’d seen and a few question marks started to appear. I went into the screening having read some of the material in the Guardian and, I think, on BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme. I didn’t have any ‘agenda’ as such going in, but I do have a general apprehension about what might be termed ‘National Geographic‘-type films – those mixing wildlife and social anthropology and offering beautiful ‘exotic’ landscapes etc. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film in which we meet Aisholpan and her father Rys Nurgaiv. She wants to become an ‘eagle hunter’. Traditionally Rys would have trained his son, but the young man has joined the army. Aisholpan has been around eagles all her life. Her father has been a successful eagle hunter and he keeps a bird for seven years in order to hunt foxes and small mammals in the mountains. Hunting also gives him social status since the Eagle Hunt Festival is now a major tourist attraction in the town of Ölgii with its significant Kazakh diaspora community. He has no objection to training his daughter and his wife is equally supportive. The film comprises three main sections. Aisholpan finds a 3 month-old eaglet (females are preferred as they are bigger than males), successfully takes it from the nest and trains it; her father trains Aisholpan so she can take part in the festival and finally she goes with her father to hunt with her eagle in the winter to ‘prove’ she is a hunter. Interspersed between these sequences we see glimpses of Aisholpan’s life at home and at school (she’s a weekly boarder at school – her father collects her at weekends).

Aishoplan studies hard in school . . .

Aisholpan studies hard in school . . . (photo: Asher Svidensky)

The film is described as a documentary and in some ways it resembles a superior reality TV programme with extra wildlife footage (Simon Niblett is an experienced wildlife cinematographer, director Otto Bell’s background is in corporate documentaries for multinational companies – he’s a Brit working out of New York). My two concerns about the film are that little information is given to us about the background of the community at its centre and, secondly, everything just seems to go so well. The description I gave in the first paragraph above came from my later research into Kazakh traditions and the diaspora in Mongolia – nothing was said in the film.  In terms of the ‘ease’ of Aisholpan’s progress, in these kinds of narratives something usually ‘gets in the way’ of the hero – there are obstacles to overcome. Aisholpan seems to succeed almost immediately with everything she attempts. Her strong personality probably prevents us from noticing this smooth progress – we are happy for her, she deserves success. But doubts creep in. We wonder if perhaps the filmmaker has manipulated reality a little too much? But perhaps the crucial factor in increasing our worries is the gender equality question. The film seems intent on emphasising that Aisholpan is the first young woman to become an eagle hunter and that she faces stiff opposition. But the only ‘evidence’ of this is a montage of ‘grumpy old men’ who say “It’s not right” and similar. Yet everyone else – her father and mother, her grandfather, the judges at the Eagle Hunt Festival competition – supports her. What is going on?

Is the film a manipulation of the reality of gender roles in this Kazakh community?

When I started to read reviews and commentaries, I soon came across claims and counter-claims. The Canadian writer Meghan Fitz-James has been the most vociferous critic of the film’s ‘manipulation’ of the original story and you can read a piece by her here in which she also quotes from an article by Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University. (Fitz-James also adds a posting in which she explains how attempts were made to take down her original posting.) Adrienne Mayor explains how eagle-hunting has been carried out by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia for thousands of years:

Male bürkitshi [eagle falconers] are certainly more common than females today, although eagle hunting has always been open to interested girls. Archaeology suggests that eagle huntresses were probably more common in ancient times. (Mayor 2016)

Mayor also argues that far from a conservative society with fixed gender roles, these nomadic peoples developed a form of gender equality because men, women and children had to learn how to survive in such a harsh environment. Reading these papers, I remembered that the origins of the film were in a project undertaken by an Israeli photographer and documentary-maker Asher Svidensky. Director Otto Bell saw one of Svidensky’s original photos and decided he wanted to make a film. The two got together and Bell shot the scenes of capturing the eaglet. I think I remember an interview in which Bell said that his money ran out and he had to seek further backing. At this point I think he turned for advice to Morgan Spurlock the director of successful box office docs such as Supersize Me (US 2004). Spurlock eventually became one of the Executive Producers on The Eagle Huntress and on his website morganspurlock.com there is this description of the film:

. . . this film not only explores the life of a young girl striving to pursue her passion and break down gender barriers in a very traditional culture . . .

Whatever Otto Bell learned about selling his film, it certainly seems like it was based on a false premise. The more the gainsayers dig into this, the more obvious the manipulation becomes. How much the scenes (and the dialogue) were scripted doesn’t really matter, though I think the film would be improved by a little more ‘reality’. I don’t want to take anything away from Aisholpan or her story and I’m all in favour of inspiring young women with heroes like this young Kazakh girl. But it is unfortunate to say the least that the filmmakers have retained the false message about gender in Kazakh society and that they still call the film a documentary. The music too seems chosen to emphasise the appeal to the target audience but doesn’t seem to match the cultural context (I know I’m too old to appreciate the music!).

The whole story of the film’s production and distribution would make an excellent case study for Film Studies and Media Studies students in schools and FE/HE exploring what ‘documentary’ now means. Here is the official (US) trailer, note the steer in the narration:

(This post has been amended a couple of times, as I’ve found out more.)

About a Girl (Germany 2014)

AboutAGir1web-632x284

There are not that many screenings of German films these days, so this title in the Leeds Young Film Festival looked promising. It amply repaid the time at the Picture House. The Festival Brochure recommends:

See this if you liked: Heathers, Girl Interrupted, Juno.

In fact the last title is nearest in tone: a fresh and engaging look at a moment (a sort of rite de passage) when a teenage girl finds herself re-examining life, family, relationships and the larger meanings. In some ways the film seems blackly comic, as one of its main themes is ‘death’. However, this is contrasted with ‘life’ and the drama is not only affirming but is more questioning than sardonic.

The protagonist is fifteen and three quarter years Charleen (Jasna Fritzi Bauer). She lives with her mother Sabine, (Heike Makatsch, her nickname from her own teens is Bini); her younger brother and internet savvy Oscar; her granny Emmi (Dorothea Walda, much sharper that she first appears; and Sabine’s boyfriend Volker (Simon Schwarz, sometimes called Holger). In the course of the film we also find out about her father (not around). We meet her school friend Isa (Amelie Plaas-Link). And several schoolboys including Linus (Sandro Lohmann). Apart from being bright at maths he appears to also be an amateur taxidermist.

The Festival Brochure reveals that:

One day she (Charleen) decides to commit suicide. Waking up in hospital after her failed attempt, both her, her family and her friends are forced to reassess their lives and relationships.

This takes up the rest of the narrative. In the course of this we meet an unconventional psychologist Dr. Frei (Nikolaus Frei). We visit a funeral parlour, Charleen’s school, and a cemetery. We also meet Dr. Frei’s talking Budgie and Linus’ pet hamster Archie. We listen in on school sex lessons and watch the dynamics of teenagers in this environment; including their tendency to cruelty.

All this is treated with a relatively light touch. The film does become more serious in the last 40 minutes or so, but even here the plot allows the odd moment of wit or whimsy. One sequence I enjoyed was a near accident as the driver took her eyes off the road: the wandering eyes of drivers always worry me in films. A subjective viewpoint is also introduced with Charleen’s momentary imaginings about friends and people she meets. Several of these have real panache.

One of the virtues of the film is the style. It is more naturalistic than realist. But the techniques used, which include a couple of overhead shots and a crane, a slight slow motion effect and a series of freeze frames, is always completely apt. I was especially pleased that the Steadicam shots did not attempt to emulate a handheld camera.

My sense of teenage years is now all down to memories: but I found the confusions and angst depicted completely convincing. The film does attempt to include possibly too many issues: we have a gay relationship. But even here it fits. The final resolution of the relationships is slightly pat, but seems to work.

It looks like the film does not have a UK distributor as it does not have a BBFC Certificate: the Brochure recommends 15. It is to be hoped that some bright company picks it up. It is a rewarding 104 minutes and with the right publicity should surely win an audience. The film is in colour, 2.39:1 and has English subtitles. Well spotted by the Festival programmers.

Director and Writers: Mark Monheim. Music by Sebastian Pille; Cinematography by Daniel Schönauer; Film Editing by Stine Sonne Munch; Casting by Stefany Pohlmann; Production Design by Cinzia Fossati, Christina Heidelmeier; Costume Design by Carola Raum. The film is in German with English subtitles: oddly, I could not find a German title for the film.

Paddington (UK-France 2014)

Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins) makes the first move to invite the migrant bear to join the family.

Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins) makes the first move to invite the migrant bear to join the family.

Paddington has been a huge hit and it is largely deserved. It needs to be a hit since StudioCanal are reported to have invested $50 million in its production after Warner Bros. pulled out of the project set up with their Harry Potter partner David Heyman in 2007. Heyman then teamed up with TF1 Films in France  – with StudioCanal taking UK and French distribution. Harvey Weinstein has the North American rights. Heyman via Heyday Films also produced Gravity.

I’m too old and too distant from children’s literature to know anything about Paddington as a character but I can do the research and it’s clear that this film adaptation should appeal to a large international fanbase. The books by Michael Bond first appeared in 1958 and have now sold 30 million copies globally in 40 languages. The central character is an orphan bear from ‘Darkest Peru’ who travels to London where he hopes to find the home promised to his family by a British explorer/adventurer who ‘discovered’ the bears in the 1930s. This bear speaks beautiful English learned from recordings and is ‘named’ when he is found by the Brown family sitting with his suitcase on Paddington Station in London. They take him home and the adventure begins. (Bond is said to have had taken the idea for the books from the stories of evacuation of children from the UK’s major cities during the Second World War.)

As far as I can work out, the film’s script by Paul King and Hamish McColl draws on several published stories and will have some ‘authenticity’ for fans. King also directed the film. His background is in directing theatre, film and TV shows featuring comic talents such as Richard Ayoade and Matt Lucas (who has a cameo in Paddington). McColl has written two of Rowan Atkinson’s  blockbuster comedy films. What King and McColl have come up with in Paddington is a comedy with appeal to children and adults which grapples interestingly with fantasy, parodies of well-known films and an odd but intriguing take on historical time periods. This latter is a result of the long production history of the books and the major social (and aesthetic) changes that have taken place over fifty years and more. The James Bond films face the same problem but they attempt to place Bond – a 1950s character – firmly in the contemporary world. Paddington is, for me, more interesting and more successful.

There have been TV series based on the books, two North American, one British, but all animations. Paddington is a live action feature in which the bear is created by a combination of animatronics and CGI. Framestore the UK company that helped produce Gravity had a major role in Paddington. The bear is voiced by Ben Whishaw in a very accomplished performance and everything about the presentation of Paddington works flawlessly as far as I can see.

The weakest part of the film is probably the action narrative featuring Nicole Kidman as a kind of Cruella de Vil character who is out to stuff Paddington to complete her collection of exotic animals. This involves borrowing the heist scene from Mission Impossible, a chase through the Natural History Museum and what can only be described as various fetish outfits for Ms Kidman (there is definitely a shoe fetishist involved somewhere!). The earlier comic sequences worked much better for me.

The main interest in the film outside of its obvious broad appeal is what it contributes to the current discourse about immigration. The whole narrative concerns the arrival in the UK of a migrant bear who is expecting a warm welcome but who finds that his first ‘host’, Mr Brown considers only offering him temporary asylum unless he can find a relative of the explorer who promised  him a welcome – otherwise he will be packed off to an ‘institution’. This all sounds very familiar. Two other aspects of the scenario are also worth mentioning. The original ‘invitation’ to the UK dates from the period of Empire and Mr Brown’s attitude is not matched by that of his wife and children who quickly become Paddington’s supporters. Young people in the UK are generally seen as less likely to be anti-immigrant than older people.

Damon Albarn's re-release of Lord Kitchener's calypso led to its inclusion on the soundtrack for Paddington.

Damon Albarn’s re-release of Lord Kitchener’s calypso led to its inclusion on the soundtrack for Paddington.

The migration narrative is of course caught up in the conundrum about the time period setting. The most problematic representation in the film is a product of this. The Browns live in the area of Bayswater/Westbourne Grove/Notting Hill. In 1958 this was one of the London districts in which ‘West Indian’ (as they were known then) migrants first settled and Notting Hill was the site of an infamous ‘race riot’ in that year. In the present film a group of colourfully-dressed ‘calypsonians’ pop up at various points in the narrative performing songs on street corners and in alleyways. One song is a version of Lord Kitchener’s calypso ‘London is the place for me’ which he sang when the SS Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury in 1948 with the first post-war migrant workers from the Caribbean. The story behind the soundtrack is told in this BBC Report. I enjoyed these musical performances but they do highlight the odd mixture of the modern and the historical and I do wonder if this is not an offensive representation? I don’t remember seeing many other examples in the film of London’s population diversity. London in 2014 is one of the most cosmopolitan and multiracial cities in the world but Paddington generally focuses on the middle-class white London of classic children’s books. The film is a fantasy not a social realist drama – but what do London children from Asian and African-Caribbean backgrounds in London make of it?Just a thought.

The ‘live cast’ including Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville as the Brown parents embrace their roles with gusto and overall Paddington works very well. I’m sure it will do good business in the global market and I’m intrigued to see how they develop the story and the characters in the inevitable sequel. It might be worth comparing Paddington to Aardman’s animations such as Chicken Run and the Wallace and Gromit films which represent the same timeless and nostalgic view of British culture.

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.