Chaotic Ana (Caótica Ana, Spain 2007)

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Digging into past lives

Writer-director Julio Medem can be guaranteed to get you thinking with a narrative graced with ravishing imagery and likely much nudity, particularly female. Chaotic Ana (newcomer Manuela Vellés) suddenly finds she has visions linking her to (possible) past selves, women who died young and violently at the hands of men. Her life as a naive artist in Ibiza, where she lives with her dad in a cave on the coast, is disrupted by Charlotte Rampling’s Justine (presumably named after de Sade’s character but the reason for this I can’t fathom) who runs an artists’ colony in Madrid. Here Ana meets video artist Linda (Bebe Rebolledo) and Said (Nicolas Cazalé), with whom she enters into an intimate relationship. She discovers she can dream for the first time and, under hypnosis, filmed by Linda, she investigates what might be her past. The paintings that had so enraptured Justine were doors on the cave dwelling walls: doors and dreaming = Jungian psychoanalysis. For many this will be a problem: Jung as hokum or as insight? It’s the former for me, however I’m willing to suspend disbelief in return for interesting narratives and Medem certainly succeeds on that level. There are moments (like when Ana appears on Linda’s dad’s boat) where credulity is over-stretched (I assumed it was a dream for a few minutes) but there are enough ideas whirling around to engage to the end.

At the end Medem has flung in American aggression in the Iraq war (UK was culpable too) in a very strange scene with an American politician. We also end up in Arizona (Ford’s mesas and buttes are on show) at an Native American Reservation that, as aquarello concludes is:

an awkward juxtaposition [for the film] that proves especially flawed during a pivotal encounter at a Navajo bar, where Medem’s trenchant parallel illustration of dispossession and institutional segregation between the Native American reservations in the US and the refugee camps of displaced Saharans in the Middle East – and by extension, the Iraqi occupation that has also resulted in geographic factionalism along ethnic and tribal lines – is undermined by the facile sight gag of a patron’s inebriated uncoordination.

The refugee camps in Africa are drawn into the narrative via the mysterious Said and there is a degree of Orientalism in his representation. The film was dedicated to Medem’s sister Ana, an artist who was killed in a car crash in 2001. Clearly the film is a form of therapy for the director, which explains the narrative lacunas.  Her beautiful paintings are used as her namesake’s in the film and knowledge of her death adds to the melancholy that infuses the movie.

Gumshoe (UK 1971)

Gumshoe is difficult to write about with any critical distance as it’s a film that I love on so many different levels (though I do worry about its use of racist language). It cropped up on Talking Pictures TV and worked as a tribute to Michael Medwin, one of the least recognised but most important figures in the British film industry over a period of 60 years or more – mainly as a character actor but also as a producer. Medwin died aged 96 a month ago and since Talking Pictures TV schedules well in advance this screening probably wasn’t planned as a tribute. In fact, because he appeared in over 100 films and TV programmes, Michael Medwin pops up frequently on Talking Pictures. In 1968 Medwin’s production company  established with Albert Finney, Memorial Enterprises, released its first two films. Charlie Bubbles (1968) was directed by Finney from a Shelagh Delaney script and co-starred himself with Billie Whitelaw and Liza Minnelli and if . . . . made a star of Malcolm McDowell in Lindsay Anderson’s film. Spring and Port Wine followed in 1970 with James Mason in a Bill Naughton-scripted family melodrama set in Bolton. I really should post something on each of these three films, important to me when I first saw them and also now.

Gumshoe re-unites Finney and Whitelaw as actors but it also introduces a whole range of other creative talents. Albert Finney plays Eddie Ginley, a man in his early thirties who has ‘achieved’ little so far. He lives in a bed-sit at the top of a Liverpool town house where he re-reads Dashiel Hammett and develops a comedy routine to try out in the social club where he has a job as a bingo caller and occasional MC. But now he decides to expand his range and he posts an ad in the Echo offering his services as a ‘Private Eye’. He intends to hide behind his Sam Spade impersonation and dresses and talks like his hero in The Maltese Falcon. He’s surprised to get a phone call quite quickly and to be offered a job that appears deeply mysterious and which shocks poor Eddie.

Eddie and Ellen at Lime Street

I won’t describe the plot but I will sketch in the characters and the themes. The script is by Neville Smith, a Liverpool lad who was a young actor in the 1960s, appearing in some of Ken Loach’s TV plays as well as writing his first script in 1966, The Golden Vision about a bunch of Everton FC supporters, for Loach. Smith also gets a small part in Gumshoe as he had in the Loach play. Finney was from Salford, just up the Ship Canal from Liverpool and Whitelaw was brought up in Bradford. Both were part of the RADA wave of brilliant young Northern actors who broke into UK stage and screen acting in the 1950s. Billie was a few years older and got a start in the early 1950s. In Gumshoe, she is Ellen, Eddie’s ex-girlfriend who went and married his older brother William, the smooth and money-grabbing character played by Frank Finlay. Finlay was born in Farnworth, Bolton. There are also parts for two familiar Liverpool actors, Bill Dean as the club owner and a cameo for Ken Jones as a clerk in the labour exchange. Liverpool looks good in the film, from an oddly deserted Lime Street station down to the docks and around several streets of Georgian terraces. At one point Eddie goes down to London and meets a woman in a bookshop played by a young Maureen Lipman (from Hull). I thought this scene was perhaps a nod to Humphrey Bogart in the bookshop in The Big Sleep where he meets Dorothy Malone. There were moments too when Eddie’s internal monologue seemed more Chandler than Hammett when he refers to hotel carpet “so thick you could feel Axminster up to your knees”. And to reverse Lippman in London, Eddie also has a joking dialogue with Wendy Richard as a girl working in William’s office who came up to Liverpool from London and got conned into staying (Richard was born in Middlesbrough). The mystery is concocted by the arrival of a South African in Liverpool played by the American actor Janice Rule and the mystery girl (looking very late 60s) is Carolyn Seymour as a South African post-grad student. Finally, Fulton Mackay is a menacing would-be Scots gangster type. Mackay and Jones were re-united in the long-running UK sitcom and later feature film Porridge (1974-9).

Eddie exchanges ‘hard-boiled’ dialogue with Anne (Wendy Richard)

The dangerous criminal narrative behind all the comedy moments involves William’s trading company getting involved in a sanctions-busting enterprise, shipping goods to Mozambique that will then be transported to Rhodesia to support the Ian Smith regime. This plot seems vestigial at best and Eddie’s involvement is accidental. One disturbing feature is that the young white South African woman played by Seymour is protected by a black student (Oscar James). He has to be ‘dealt with’ in the process of the smuggling deal and Eddie (who discovers what happens) refers to him using the language of Hammett/Chandler as it might have been used in the 1930s and adds to them some 1970s racist terms. Similarly, Eddie’s comic routine includes the kinds of racist/sexist lines common in northern clubs at the time. It’s jarring now but it works in context – Eddie is a good guy, even if he does himself no favours. Perhaps his racial taunting is cover for his own terror? I think we forget now just how prevalent such language was, but even so it does demean Eddie and emphasises his lack of confidence in himself. His relationship with Whitelaw as Ellen is not dissimilar to their relationship in Charlie Bubbles. But in this case marriage to the horrible William seems to have derailed Ellen.

Eddie with Straker (Fulton Mackay)

This is a great Liverpool film and an essential North of England film. (There is a useful Liverpool perspective on this website.) Gumshoe did get a US release but, from some of the reviews, it did present problems for American viewers. Some must have been baffled by Finney playing the ‘loser’. It was a début fiction feature for director Stephen Frears (from Leicester) who would go to become one of the most accomplished British directors of the last fifty years. It’s a sign of where British cinema was heading in the 1970s that Frears began in TV and made his name there with some important working relationships, including with the writer Alan Bennett on TV films and plays. Apart from the criminally under-rated and neglected The Hit in 1984, it wasn’t until My Beautiful Laundrette in 1985 that Frears would emerge as an international filmmaker – and even then its success was almost accidental since that film began as a Channel 4 TV film. Chris Menges photographed Gumshoe as his first high profile job after Kes in 1969. He had shot Living Memory a 57 minute drama directed by Tony Scott, again for Memorial Enterprises in 1971, but I don’t think that got a cinema release. Gumshoe was composed for 1:1.66 projection so it is very slightly blown-up and then cropped to fit the 16:9 TV screen. There is plenty of diegetic music in Gumshoe, mainly in the club, but the only false note in the film for me was the non-diegetic song over the final scene and closing credits – by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. This was before their careers had taken off. Lloyd Webber is credited with the film’s music but this is the only one of the duo’s compositions (the others are covers) and it is wrong on every level. It’s the song not the singer, who was Roy Young, a ‘Beatles in Hamburg’ era rocker. But there is a mute button on the TV remote.

Humphrey Bogart was popular again in the late 1960s/early 1970s. In 1969 Woody Allen appeared on Broadway in Play It Again Sam in which he actually converses with a Bogart look-alike and a film version was directed by Herbert Ross in 1972. I don’t know if Neville Smith saw the play. Probably not, but he may have caught the zeitgeist. There is another link worth exploring and that is Jack Gold’s The Reckoning (1969), a film in which Nicol Williamson plays a scouse version of Charlie Bubbles, returning to Liverpool for his father’s funeral and investigating the death. Columbia put money into both The Reckoning and GumshoeGumshoe is now available on a Blu-ray from the UK specialist distributor Indicator. The disc also carries an early Stephen Frears short Burning (1968), shot in Morocco standing in for South Africa.

A Sun (Taiwan 2019)

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A divided family

It’s striking that a two and a half plus hour melodrama doesn’t quite give enough attention to some of the characters. That’s not to say that the script by Chung Mong-hong and Chang Yao-sheng, is baggy, more that it is so rich in its characterisation; Chung also directed as well as photographing the film under the pseudonym Nakashima Nagao. It’s a family melodrama featuring, what Han Cheung, of the Taipei Times, tells us is a typical emotional landscape of a Tawainese family:

This kind of family dynamic is fairly common in Taiwanese society. Although every family member deeply cares for each other, they shut each other out and even say hurtful things, often preferring to secretly ‘help’ in ways that cause even more discord. A-wen’s character exemplifies this archetype — frail, crooked and wrinkled but unwilling to bend even a little bit.

A-wen is the putative family patriarch (Chen Yi-wen) who works as a driving instructor but is clearly himself forever learning about the responsibility and roles of a father and husband. The films starts when one of his sons, A-Ho (Wu Chien-Ho) takes part in an eye-popping assault that makes it appear we are watching a gang movie and not a family melodrama. He’s indicted and receives no support from dad in the courtroom. We spend some time in juvenile detention with A-Ho during which his mum, Miss Qin (Samantha Ho), learns he’s got his girlfriend pregnant. Miss Qin is the bedrock of the family and it’s questionable, from a western perspective, why she doesn’t chuck her husband out.

They have another son, A-Hao (Han Hsu Greg), who’s a dreamy youngster trying to get into medical college. His character is somewhat under drawn and a shocking narrative turn suffers from this. Similarly, A-wen’s girlfriend is given little space to develop as a character and disappears before the end.

There are other complications (are you keeping up?) as when A-Ho is freed his old partner in crime, the superbly named Radish in a chiling performance by Liu Kuan-Ting, returns to mess up his rehabilitation.

As you can see there’s plenty of melodramatic meat and this is served up with some stunning cinematography where green and red predominates giving a sickly and violent hue to a often hyperreal mise en scène, particularly in the night scenes. It’s not surprising that the film was a big winner at the Taiwanese Golden Horse awards (for Chinese language films), including best film, director and for Chen Yi-wen and Liu Kuan-Ting.

The Awakening of the Ants (El despertar de las hormigas Costa Rica-Spain, 2019)

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Happy family?

This is a superb debut from writer-director Antonella Sudasassi featuring an astonishing central performance from Daniela Valenciano in only her second film appearance, 10 years after her first. She plays Isabel, mother of two daughters and wife to Alicdes (Leynar Gomez) who’s, along with his family, petitioning for a third child. When we meet Isa she is decorating a birthday cake whilst the mayhem of a children’s party whirls around her. The men talk football and ask for coffee and beers. The camera lingers on her and Sudasassi’s facial expressions tell us all we need to know of what she is feeling; it is bravura filmmaking and performance. And then she plunges her hands into the cake, in frustration, taking us into Isa’s interior world.

The film portrays the everyday life of a poor Costa Rican family which Latin American machismo, and the Catholic Church, makes worse by consigning women to the role of homemaker; Isa dreams of having a sewing business and knows having a third child would make that even more unlikely. Sudasassi daringly has Isa discover her own sexuality from her young, and innocent, daughter. In a brilliant scene she experiments with masturbation while her husband sleeps oblivious next to her.

I mentioned the destruction of the cake, which was all in Isa’s mind, and we are ‘treated’ to other expressionist moments, such as when insects plague her in the shower. Isa is having a mental breakdown with no one to support her. As strong female characters go, she is with the best as she strives to overcome her oppression.

Alicides is no monster. As no doubt most men in patriarchal societies are, he is blithely ignorant of his privilege. In one scene she insists he help lay the table for dinner and he has to be told where the cutlery is and reminded to include glasses. He’s uncomplaining and bemused and certainly has no understanding that really he should know where all this stuff is!

The performances are excellent throughout and Sudasassi shoots family scenes with the authenticity of ‘direct cinema’. In particular the two daughters are marvellously natural; as a portrayal of a ‘slice of life’ goes this one oozes authority.

The film was screened in Berlin and on MUBI worldwide (just available for three more days) and, as Sudasassi explains:

‘The story of Isabel of Hormigas is part of a transmedia project which seeks to explore sexuality in the vital stages of women. The project is interdisciplinary and collaborative and invited artists* from all over the world to create a collective mosaic of honest experiences about femininity and sexuality in order to demystify it and provoke a rupture with the violence inherent in traditional gender roles.’

She is a talent to watch.

Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di ferragosto, Italy 2008)

Gianni’s day begins at his local shop with a small glass of white wine . . .

I remembered this film, or possibly its successor The Salt of Life (2011), when I was given a DVD of it by a friend (who often finds interesting DVDs in London charity shops). This is a U Certificate film running just 75 minutes so its something anyone can watch. We sat down with it on a Saturday night when TV is virtually unwatchable (if you aren’t following the serial on BBC4). Watching it with the lockdown in Italy was an emotional experience.

. . . and he often joins his friend ‘Viking’ outside the shop

Writer–director Gianni Di Gregorio had been an actor and writer with experience in theatre and film before he made this film as his directorial début. At roughly the same time he also worked on the rather different Gomorra for director Matteo Garrone (who, in turn produced this film). Di Gregorio also plays the central character in Mid-August Lunch and the main ‘action’ is set in his own flat. Playing what seems like a barely changed version of himself, Gianni is struggling to maintain his flat which houses him and his 93 year-old mother (Valeria De Franciscis). He owes back-rent and payments for various facilities but as the ancient festival of Ferragosto approaches, his landlord’s agent offers him a deal. If he will look after the agent’s mother Marina (Marina Cacciotti) over the the two nights of the festival, the agent will waive the amenities payments and the back-rent. Gianni feels he has to agree, but when the mother arrives she brings a second ‘guest’, Maria, the agent’s aunt. And then, to cap it all, Gianni’s doctor comes up with a similar proposal, depositing his mother Grazia (Grazia Cesarini Sforza) with strict instructions about medication and diet. Gianni finds himself catering for four elderly ladies and trying to keep them amused.

Gianni with his mother

There isn’t really any plot to speak of. The three ‘guests’ plus Gianni’s mother, are all presented as ‘ordinary people’ with the kinds of likes and dislikes we all have. They want to watch TV or they want quiet. They don’t want to abide by the ‘rules’ that Gianni has been given, especially about what they are ‘allowed’ to eat. But they are also gregarious and flirtatious. Fortunately, Gianni has two great qualities. He is able to remain calm under pressure and he appears to be both an imaginative and efficient cook. Both of these qualities are perhaps only maintained by copious imbibing of white wine. In my limited experience of Italian film, TV and literature, a small glass of white wine is an essential part of daily life, capable of keeping most horrors at bay.

Maria helps in the kitchen, slicing the mozzarella

One of the great pleasures of this film, apart from the interactions of the characters is its presentation of Italian food culture. It appears to me that Italians generally eat very well. They take care to eat interesting things and they are prepared to pay for good quality provisions in local shops. It’s a long time since I’ve been to Italy so perhaps it is now over-run by fast food joints and German supermarkets? I hope not. During this time of coronavirus it breaks my heart to think that this eating culture has been disrupted.

The Lady and the Mob (US 1939)

This was the second of two ‘B’ Pictures Ida Lupino made at Columbia in early 1939. Director Ben Stollof had become known for comedy short films and then B pictures at RKO. Ida Lupino had already made one film with him in 1937, Fight For Your Lady, when she was loaned out to RKO by Paramount. Now Stollof appeared to be making a film to be ‘presented’ by Columbia. Ida would at least have had some idea of what to expect. She was upset to be working on films like this, a 66 minute ‘gangster comedy’, but she was also grateful for the work after ending her contract at Paramount.

The plot is straightforward. Ida’s character Lila has fallen for Fred Leonard (Lee Bowman) in New York. They have agreed to marry and Lila is to travel ahead to Macklin City where Fred’s mother Hattie is a rich widow and the owner of a bank. Hattie (Fay Bainter, the star of the film) tends to treat each of Fred’s successive girlfriends as a replacement secretary and she sets a bemused Lila to work on her correspondence. But then by chance she discovers that a protection racket is being operated in the city which bizarrely seems to be focused on all the dry-cleaning shops. Hattie is not the kind of woman to take any kind setback lying down and when she is charged a little extra by her dry cleaner to cover his rising costs, she finds out about the protection racket and sets out to fix the problem. The police and the city mayor seem to be powerless so Hattie determines to fight the local gangsters herself. This involves re-visiting one of her previous ‘good deeds’ when she reformed a mobster who is now her loyal helper. Frankie O’Fallon (Warren Hymer) is charged with finding a gang of reformed criminals to act as a ‘counter-mob’, breaking up this new racket.

Fay Bainter as Hattie (left) and Ida Lupino as Lila, obliged to become the older woman’s secretary.

Hattie is rich and can therefore pay the men and equip them with an arsenal of weaponry and a bullet-proof car. A crime comedy ensues with familiar characters. Fay Bainter (1893-1968) was only in her mid-forties but is dressed almost as a Victorian matriarch. She therefore refers to the familiar figure of the warring granny, the older woman who appears almost as a motherly figure towards the reformed mobster. Jokes can be made about her naïvety but we know that she is much sharper and more resourceful than the average dim-witted hoodlum. Bainter was in fact a distinguished stage actor who had not been long in Hollywood. In 1939 she was still ‘hot’ having achieved the rare accolade of two Academy Award nominations in 1938. One was for Best Actress, playing opposite Claud Rains in White Banners for Warner Bros. She didn’t win for that but she did as Best Supporting Actress for another Warners film, Jezebel – now remembered as a Bette Davis classic directed by William Wyler. Davis won the Oscar for Best Actress. Fay Bainter played ‘Aunt Bessie’ but she was only 15 years older than Davis. There is a story here I think about how Fay Bainter goes from double Oscar nominee to lead in a ‘B’ picture in the space of a year. It was only a temporary setback and she returned to ‘third-billed’ roles in ‘A’ films during the early 1940s. Ironically she would work with Lupino again in 1947 on Ida’s last Warners’ picture The Deep Valley, when Ida  Lupino was the star and Fay Bainter was fourth-billed.

In this film, Lupino has little to do apart from point up the antics of Bainter’s character. She does give the film a little sex appeal, at the beginning offering a passionate farewell to her fiancé and later donning a slinky black dress in order to entrap the lead hoodlum in a nightclub. Overall, however, this is perhaps the flimsiest role for Ida that I’ve come across so far. Fortunately, she would soon get the more prestigious role in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes that would give her a stronger promotional platform.

The Lady and the Mob can be found online by searching for the title.