Water Dropwort

Minari (Lee Isaac Chung, 2020)

This has the feel of a fable — the Yi family move from 1980s California to Arkansas to live in a static caravan where Jacob (Steven Yeun) starts a farm to grow vegetables for Korean restaurants and Monica (Han Ye-ri) works in a chicken sexing unit to try and bring more money in. After a short period, they bring her mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) across for childcare and Korean War vet Paul (Will Patton) helps out.

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Clang!

Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, 2019)

I’d noticed Riz Ahmed in a couple of films and been impressed, and of course he’s in Chris Morris’s Four Lions, so here he is in pretty well every scene, if not shot, of this film. Heavy metal drummer Ruben Stone (Ahmed) is in the middle of a low budget tour with his thinly-drawn girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) when he begins to lose his hearing. Whilst he is determined to get cochlear implants, first he has to check into a school for the hearing impaired and learn to sign. Here he reluctantly learns from Vietnam vet Joe (Paul Raci, stealing every scene) and befriends Jenn (Chelsea Lee).

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What You Can A ford

Nomadland (Chloé Zhao, 2020)

This film is easy to love — Faye (Frances McDormand), recently widowed in a small Nevadan town ruined by the gypsum company which had owned it, buys a van and heads out into deep, marginal America, it what could be a feminist western (and clearly references The Searchers). Faye finds work in an Amazon warehouse, a burger bar, a trailer park and a sugar beet plant, along the way meeting other boomers who have lost homes and families and livid the nomad lifestyle. Many of these are based on real people, who play version of themselves — the exception being David (David Strathairn), who she meets en route and he forms a transient, tenuous, almost relationship. McDormand is in every scene — almost every shot — with only Patricia Clarkson coming close to her for this kind of unglamorous role in Hollywood. The scenes with Strathairn are especially strong.

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To Tie Firmly

Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca (1938)

Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

Rebecca (Ben Wheatley, 2020)

It may be, of course, that I read Rebecca years and years ago — I know I started it and I studied the opening paragraph, the dream of the Manderley mansion from years later, but I’m not sure I got much further. And when I bought two Du Maurier boxsets, I don’t think Rebecca was part of them. It took me a while to track down a copy — although naturally I found several since, as a battered paperback 1992 reprint got more battered as it got carried around.

The conceit should be familiar: lady’s companion Rebecca meets aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo and the two have a whirlwind romance, before returning to the ancestral pad in … where we take to be Cornwall but it isn’t named in the book. The new bride finds life at Manderley difficult and the ghost of the dead Rebecca hangs over her, especially through the behaviour of housekeeper Mrs Danvers. A ball would be useful, perhaps, but Mrs Danvers persuades her to wear the same costume as Rebecca had and then it seems as if a wedge has been driven between the loving couple. Then a body is discovered in a sunken boat… Continue reading →

White, Red and Topkapi

Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon, a German Children’s Story, Michael Haneke, 2009)

Topkapi (Julius Dassin, 1964)

Red Joan (Trevor Nunn, 2018)

The White Ribbon has the same slightly frustrating and unnerving feel as Happy End, this time set in Germany (or possibly Austria) in the year leading up to World War One. An unnamed teacher (played by Christian Friedel) narrates (Ernst Jacobi) his memory of a time in a small village, where the pastor (Burghart Klaußner) fills the children with fears of sin and damnation, forcing the guilty parties (including his own children) to wear white ribbons as a symbol of wrongdoing. This seems to invite wrongdoing — an attempt to kill the doctor, vandalism, masturbation, violent revenge — and presumably is building a narrative that will lead to the Second World War. The right people aren’t necessarily punished.

Meanwhile, Topkapi is a much lighter confection — for which Peter Ustinov won his second Academy Award. Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri) and Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell) hatch a plan to steal a treasure from a museum in Istanbul. Simpson (Ustinov) is meant to be a patsy, but gets recruited into the scheme. There’s some odd fourth wall breaking, especially at the beginning, and Mercouri, presumbaly not acting in her own language, can’t quite carry the film. Schell, meanwhile, is handsome in a way I’d never noticed before, knowing him better for The Black Hole (1979). But Ustinov steals every scene he is in and the whole thing is almost a dry run for The Italian Job, with a less clever ending. I really ought to read Eric Ambler one of these days.

I watched Topkapi knowing nothing about it — it popped up on BBC iPlayer. This led me to Red Joan, which takes the real story of the exposure of an old woman, Melita Norwood, as a Soviet spy. Here she is Joan Smith (Judi Dench), initially defended by her son Nick Stanley (Ben Miles, who I keep confusing with Ben Miller), arrested for sixty years earlier leaking of atomic secrets and occasionally has to look like she has indigestion so we can flashback to 1949 and Sophie Cookson being Young Joan. The politics is frankly botched and the sexism of the the 1940s is a little underplayed. Dench is always worth watching — and Iris did a more interesting double casting and flashback (although Kate Winslet was still less interesting). 

If You’re Happy and You Know it

Happy End (Michael Haneke, 2017)

On a scale of 1 to to Von Trier, this is about a seven.

The Laurent family run a formerly construction firm near Calais and in the second sequence, a long shot from a security camera, we see a collapse of earth next to a huge set of foundations, complete with a Portaloo falling into the abyss. We are already on the edge, having seen smart phone footage of Eve Laurent’s mother in a bathroom and apparently taking sedatives, and of Eve (Fantine Harduin) doping and possibly killing her pet hamster.

Eve goes to stay with her father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his new wife Anaïs (Laura Verlinden), elderly grandfather Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and aunt Anne (Isabelle Huppert). The Laurent family is in crisis — Georges wants to die, Thomas is having an affair, Anne is considering marriage to Lawrence Bradshaw (the as-always splendid Toby Jones) and Laurent family firm manager Pierre (Franz Rogowski) is out of his deoth and drinking too heavily.

Haneke expects us to fill in a lot of the gaps — he likes filming from a distance, softening the suicide attempts and violence, sometimes letting us imagine it. There are skips in time where we have to infer events. And Thomas’s sexting is almost illegible, given the tiny surtitles, although that might be as well.

There are other lacunae — the class positioning of the Laurent’s servants, Rachid (Hassam Ghancy) and Jamila (Nabiha Akkari) is fairly obvious, but the role of the illegal migrants in the Jungle camp at Calais seems underdeveloped. There’s something here about white, upper middle class privilege, but it ends up more to Anne’s favour and Thomas’s detriment than might be helpful. Are these the same people that Georges has talked to in a long shot, a moment tinged with potential violence as that’s the filmic language of Happy End.

The title is of course ironic, or at least ambiguous, as those of us who have seen Happiness (Todd Solondz, 1998) or even La Bonheur (Happiness, 1965) can attest. But perhaps that’s all too obvious.

Don’t Call Me …

Shirley (Josephine Decker,  2018)

The first rule of biopics is that they are not biographies of their subjects — in this case we have Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), best known for the inexplicably thought to be frightening “The Lottery” and the twice-filmed The Haunting of Hill House. She clearly had some issues with smoking and barbiturates and other meds and an unfaithful husband.

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