Down Terrace (2009)


The first film Ben Wheatley made on a very very shoe-string budget. And 4th film of his I’ve seen; I’ve already reviewed Sightseers, and A Field in England, but couldn’t be bothered with The Kill List.

I almost couldn’t be bothered to review this either. Its pretty bad.

Small time gangsters living in a Brighton semi-detached. A father, the bespectacled son, and a moll of a mom. Why shout at one another when you can scream? Why waste energy getting angry with people – when you can kill em?

This starts as low-grade Mike Leigh and ends up as, well, something I don’t really know (because I never watch them)  – a thrasher slasher flick?.

The 2nd half of the film is totally ludicrous. Everybody gets bumped off. Without any plausible character motivation or narrative justification for all the murdering going on.

Was it meant to be intentionally farcical? If so its not at all funny. A black comedy piss-take on reality tv dramedy? A parody of gangster Brit flicks? A parody of a parody? Yes, its a parody of a parody that ends up sounding stupid, being pathetic.

Tonal shifts (to parody a Guardian Film critic) here are more like tonal lurches, or total tonal lapses. Whatever tone its meant to be it all sounds out of tune, with no real authorial (directorial) voice or vision. Its like its ape-shitting, sticking its arse out to show how cheeky it can get. But it feels like failure.

I know Ben Wheatley is the Brit Crits darling because he’s a homegrown homespun film-maker who is daring to be different. Trying to be a bit out the box, flouting convention, flirting and cross-fertlizing across genres. Trying to shock cinema audiences out of their norms.

But maybe he just needs to calm down a bit. Stop showing off. Stop shocking for shocks sake. And stop this juvenile fixation he seems to have with killing everybody. Maybe his next film could leave out the schlocky shock stuff and gratuitous violence, and concentrate a bit more on developing plausible characters confronted by and with authentic dilemmas (i.e no more murdering)

Dir: Ben Wheatley, UK


Silent Souls (2010)


Not much is said in this film. Not much is stated. More is alluded to, or hinted at.

Miron’s young wife Tanya has died. He asks best friend Aist to lay her body out, to prepare her to be on her way to distant Lake Nero, where they’ll burn her body and scatter its ash into the water “Drowning means to suffocate from joy, tenderness, and yearning”

Miron is combing her long hair, carefully washing her all over with a flannel; her body looks so ripe and ready still (for life) Aist brings multicoloured threads to tie into her pubic hair.

Driving along empty roads into the bleak and the barren, Miron is talking about his wife; “All 3 of Tanyas holes were working, everything only happened by my initiative” This ‘smoke’ talk is apparently something you are allowed to do over the deceased person “because it makes your face brighter and turns your grief into tenderness”.

There were rumours that Tanya didn’t love him but Miron said nothing about it. Maybe he twigged she didn’t love him and bumped her off?

We get to see something of her life flashed back; he played the luscious breasts of her, bathed her in vodka.

Seems like Aist had been loving her too.

Silent souls sharing their living inside the now dead silence of the wife. “Our people are a bit strange. Their faces are inexpressive. There are no passions boiling”. These Merja people. Suffering in bleak and cold isolation. I’ve found home!

Here, Miron and Aist have met a couple of prostitutes to warm themselves up in

‘A live womans body is also a river that carrries grief away its only a shame that you can’t drown in it’

Its all so deliciously dolorously desolate.

But then of course, its all been a great big fat fiction. The ancient Finno-Ugric Merjas of West-Central Russia died out many yonks ago. This is an elaborate ethnological piece of cod! But so brilliantly done, you couldn’t smell the stink!

Dir: Aleksey Fedorchenko, Russia


Poetry (2010)


Had this film for quite a while but haven’t watched it. Its length – 2 hours – may have put me off a bit. Or maybe because I’ve got this feeling it might make me feel too disconsolate. Well, we’ll see.

Quiet opening on a river. Children are collecting. Then a little boy spots something floating. Its a body. Suicide. Jumped off bridge. Some wretched mothers daughter.

Mija is into hospital with a prickly arm. Asked her age. 66. She looks old. But 66 isn’t old. 66 is just around the corner! I’m not going old yet.

Shes caring for a man who appears to have had a stroke. She can’t remember her words either

She has a young grandson staying with her she is a grandmother to.

She’s started daytimes classes on how to write poetry. “I do have a poets vein, I like flowers and say odd things” she says.

Half an hour in and the film takes a shockingly darker turn. Her grandson has been raping the girl who jumped off the bridge.

Is Mija going to do the wrong thing (cover it all up with blood money) or the right thing (morally) She needs to be confronting her grandson.

Great thing is I don’t know the way this film is going to go, keeps wrong footing me, surprising me, disturbing me, delighting me.

Hospital tests come back with dementia diagnosis. She won’t recall nouns, then her verbs will go.

Should have watched this film as soon as I’d got it. Its astonishing.

Here Mija visits the bridge the girl jumped off, and loses her white hat .

From the bus Mija goes straight to stroke man; gets in the bath to stroke him and ride him. Is she doing it for him as an act of compassion? Or she doing it for herself as an act of beautiful defiance?

How to find poetry in what is not – dementia, rape, suicide – poetic. Is poetry possible, necessary? Yes, poetry can be absolutely necessary. Poetry isn’t about saying nice things about flowers. Poetry strips back reality to go to the truth of the ugly beauty of what it is, what it was, to live a human life. To live and to reveal and to express Miju’s life in the life of the girl that jumped.

Yoon Jeong-hee imbues poor gentle Mija with something so sadly, delicately, all-too-human. Her fragile stoic dignity is truly beautiful to behold.

Dir: Lee Chang-dong, South Korea


Hadewijch (2009)


We’re in a convent and the girl isn’t eating. Matyring herself. As a manifestation of His love. She needs to be pushed out. “It isn’t necessary to be detached from the world in order to be with God” says nun (who is living a life of detached from the world in order to be with God)

A 73 second single take single position shot of girl – Celine – praying to crucifix in her cold winter bedroom. This is a film that is going to have to be waited with as much as watched. The patience of a saint may be required.

Celine is sent home. An ambassadorial home. Celine is so sweet, so naive, so innocent, so not of this world. She is going to make me like this film. Here she is intently listening to Bach’s Aria “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder” from St. Matthew Passion in a church. They could be playing just to fill her face with an inner radiance.

That meant far more to her than it meant to you. Or me. Her obsessive need for God looks transcendent.

You feel some actresses might only be able to act one role. And this is Julie Sokolowski’s one role, her one film (she’s hardly acted since)  She doesn’t act as an actress. She inhabits Celine as Julie Sokolowski; with pasty faced wanness, her body angled in awkwardness. A genuine ingenue charm about her that captivates me into empathy. Here is more of her charming the pants off  young muslim boy Yassine. But he fails to charm the pants off her.

Our empathy for Celine needs to feel strong and sustain because she sleep walks into a world as God-Bothery-Obssessed as her own; Islamic fanatical fundamentalism. Her spiritual journey becomes compromised and contaminated by their radical jihadism.

How does God manifest? He doesn’t appear by staying still and suffering but from action in the world. God is truth and justice. Thats what her muslim provocateur is rattling her muffy head with.

And as she wants to get closer to God, she’ll act in any way deemed to necessary to bring Him near. She’ll blow up innocent people (because letting off a bomb is bound to wake God up, and make him present?!) (pretty weak this transformation she does into jihadist. I don’t buy it. Maybe because I don’t want to believe it)

I guess this is what gives the film spot on relevance given all the recruitment of young people to fanatical forms of Islam that currently populate, and violate, our TV screens.

“Woe is me to be a human being” says Celine. And I’m believing, that for her, it is.

I haven’t understood the deliberately obscure ending. But I don’t mind that I can’t reason it out. The feeling is that some kind of miraculous grace has saved her from the error of self-sacrifice (in the form of a con on parole in a nunnery acting as a lifesaver)

I feel prodded and provoked and made uncomfortable by this film. Which is probably what Bruno Dumont wanted me to feel. His films seem to act like provocations, that never leave you alone, that unsettle and uncomfort you. That make bombs in your head.

Dir: Bruno Dumont, France


Those Happy Years (2013)


Attracted to this because its got Martina Gedeck in it speaking Italian?! Plus she’s got false eyelashes and high heels looking very glam. I might have a slight crush on Martina Gedeck.

Guido (Kim Rossi Stuart) is a 70’s coneceptual artist with a Betty Blue-alike wife Serena (Micaela Ramazzotti) and 2 young boys hung onto his every artistic narcissistic move.

Typical Italian type shouting at one another is starting already (only 5 minutes in) Serena is jealous. He’s protesting his innocence. She has a strop on. Saucepan lids are being clanged. Meanwhile Guido, or dad as he’s only ocassionally called, is trying to show the 2 boys how to see art, “Everything that is beautiful has to be new” he’s saying “When dad says “conventional” it means it sucks” says little boy.

We get a voice-over narration from the older boy now grown up, “In this family everyone tried to hang on tight to one another using either warmth or detachment”. The perspective of hindsight, a looking back at what in retrospect were “those happy years”.

I’m warming in to this. Didn’t think I’d find such a pretty pair as this so sympathetic. But Rossi Stuart and Ramazzotti both nail their roles. The fiery intensity of their hot love feels charmingly, compulsively, credible. Albeit in a more histrionic (and ocassionally hysterical) way than I’m used to putting up with.

Serena goes off to feminist summer camp in France and has lesbian love affair with Helke (Martina Gedeck) She’s no longer Guido’s clung on jealous housewife. She’s liberating her own identity independent of him. I’m finding this, finding her (Micaela Ramazzotti) quite endearing. Wheeras her affair with Helke has been life-changingly important, has been love, for Guido poking his young bits of fluff in his studio meant nothing “like scratching an itchy nose”.

Yes, I’ve enjoyed the sexy smart warmth of this. A film to keep and watched again.

Here is a clip of Guido boffing an art critic on his snotty nose for criticizing his work as “all fake, a pretence of being”. But later on, near the end, the same art critic has the about face to eat humble pie and give Guido his thumbs up.

Dir: Daniele Luchetti, Italy


Sightseers (2012)


I liked the black humour of this on first watch. On second I found it too gross-out gorily groteseque (and not so funny) Lets see what this third watch will do for me.

Midlands couple Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Steve Oram). Off in a caravan for a week. Gets a tick.

Screenplay is Victoria Wood meets John Shuttleworth relocated into Jasper Carrot. Some samples

“What where you like at school Chris? I wasn’t like anything I was invisible”.

“He’s not a person Tina hes a Daily Mail reader”

Vouchers for the Pencil Museum.

Is this taking Keef out of Nuts in May and sticking his rage inside a homicidal maniac? (Chris)

Oh dear don’t drop your wrapper you ignorant wrapper litterer you. And FFS don’t give him the finger! You’ll be caravan crushed, and blood will splatter in graphic gore. With this scene, the film jumps into another genre – a serial killer slasher gore-fest.

Now its out to get Tory 4 by 4’s and batter their smug air of complacency and entitlement (this is what I found amusing on first watch)

But slipsliding into increasingly crass and crudely incredible. A charmless couple they are. The murdering is nastily gratuitous and farcical. Come the end I couldn’t wait to get away from the stupid pair.

WTF was this meant to be? Nuts in May it certainly isn’t. Nowhere near.

Dir: Ben Wheatley, UK


A Field in England (2013)


Not sure if I really want to watch this film again. First time around it was an incoherent mess.

How to make 4 fellas wandering around a field in England interesting?

Stick them in 17th century costumes. Give them pikes and staffs and funny floppy hats. Throw in some jerky jumpy camera. Film it in b/w. to make it look and feel like mucky earth dirt. Make it feel like you can taste that muck in your mouth.

Give the characters little or no plausible motivation so as to up there weirdo rating. Don’t give any exposition or context to the arbitrary acts that keep happening. Whizz and swirl it all around in fuzzed up or blurred out camera to decontextualise and defamiliarize things even further.

Hope the screenplay (written by Ben Wheatleys partner Amy Jump) is going to be up to the mark. And it sort of is for a bit: “You’re a wise sort you. I can tell by your hands, all clean and soft. You think about a thing before you touch it” says peasant-idiot to astrologer-priest (Reece Shearsmith)

Throw in a winsome ballad sung while one floppy hat is straining to take a dump in a thicket of nettles. “Is it a boy or a girl?” shouts cheeky idiot-peasant. Ok, the bathos of this is sweet, funny

Yes, not doing too bad up to now to keep me engaged.

But about half an hour in it loses its way (loses any narrative cohesion) Theres alot of flashy stylistic tricks and tics. Freak-outs that weirdly speed up or weirdly slow mo. Any coherent plot development has unravelled into random jumping about without much inherent sense.

The insertion of a 5th character – a devilish alchemist – throws a whole load of supernatural mayhem into the mix. (Michael Smiley just looks like a man wearing fancy dress) He’s been tugged out of a magic mushroom circle on rope (totally unconvincing this) Cue for things to go silly-whacky-nuttery. Experimental turns into mad and mental. I’ve given up making any sense of the nonsense. They’re shooting and killing one another. Then undying themselves back to life again. (Shoot the lot of them! Permanently)

Reece Shearsmith is gobbling down loads of magic mushies. And is immediately sent into hallucinatory heaven cum hell.

Have to admit, its impressive how that has been created. I’m admiring the technical skill cum editing chops of how its been cut and put together.

If I ever munch a few magic mushies in the future I’ll know what to expect now.

But on second watch this film was still an incoherent messy muck of muddle. Don’t think I’ll need to be visiting this field in England again.

Dir: Ben Wheatley, UK


Two Days One Night (2014)


The Dardenne brothers. I’ve liked their films mostly (although last one about The Kid With The Bike was a bit duff and I couldn’t be bothered to review it) Films that Sociology students could happily write dissertations about.

Sandra (superb Marion Cotillard) mustn’t cry, must hold up. She’s lost her job. “I don’t exist. I’m nothing. Nothing at all” No will to fight. Too depressed. You have to fight Sandra. Come on, husband is behind you, I’m behind you. You are one of those little people. Those underdogs. Like me.

She’s got 2 days and 1 night to get her 16 work colleagues to sacrifice their big bonus and save her little job.

Pessimist in me thinks she won’t succeed. Human nature is always too self-interested. And anyway, seems like her fellow workers are being landed into a false dichotomy, presented with the wrong dilemma. Its not they she should be making calls of conscience on. Its the bloody management! Come on, let the workers unite and throw this shitty situation at those capitalist bourgeois bastards who are exploiting your labour (so says the Marxist Lennist in me)

Anyway, thats not going to happen. She’s going to have to go around each and every one of her fellow low paid co-workers and beg – from them – for her job back.

A depressed person shouldn’t have to be doing this. Too fragile. Its got too much. Swallowed a load of pills.

But you know, all people aren’t all selfishly terrible. There’s still a chance. Because there is still some basic human decency left in at least half of us – (me, you, the underpaid, the underdogged, Sandra etc) to do the right thing (i.e the less selfish and more other-centred thing)

The fighting. Thats what mattered. Engaging resolve to fight for herself and putting fragile faith in others, has renewed this depressed womans spirit. I like that ending. She did the right thing too. Lining up her decency with her integrity = dignity for all of us.

This is only really a one-watch film since everything is staked on the outcome.

Dir: Jeann-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Belgium


Bleak Moments (1971)


Mike Leigh’s first feature film (funded by a gift of £15,000 from Albert Finney) “Bleak Moments”, a title not likely to pack bums on seats. And bleak it mostly is. Its moments are of the cringeworthy school of pathetic embarrassment kind.

Looking at this I’d say the Mike Leigh oddbodball template was already set in place from the very off.

Lots of mad walking about. And nice cups of tea being made. Secretaries squirreling in maltesers. Awkward silences that hang around like casts of cloud lingering rain. Unhappy eyes in shut up faces looking for and from the sadnesses not being said. Body language betraying emotions (usually wearing various undercoats of neurotic distress)

And here all the usual Mike Leigh crowd – of shy social misfits, lonely loners, minor melancholics, timid isolates, malajusted miserables, dysfunctionals, inadequates  – for me to feel my perverse kind of belonging to.

So in this film we’ve got 5 repressed characters hidden – or indeed tortured – inside various shades of shyness. Sylvia is slightly less shy than mumbly Norm. But not as pathologically repressed as fish-eyed Peter. Or as passively aggressively irritating as Pat. Or as special needs abnormal as sister Hilda.

Actually, they’re all “special needs” dysfunctional. Suffering with – and from – disabling self-consciousness disease. Can’t get out of themselves. Can’t get away from crippling consciousness of lack: of class, connection, creative self-expression. They all zombie about inside the morgue of themselves in a kind of catatonic stupor of locked-in syndrome.

Hey you lot?! I want to shout, everybody needs to take a chill pill, breathe out, relax, decompress, unrepress. But of course, back then (all of 40 years ago?!) they didn’t know how, hadn’t got the wherewithal (or the therapy) (or the internet), were still too deep conditioned, trapped, imprisoned (by Mike Leigh’s barely explored or fathomed, sexual  – and social – Inferiority Complex Neurosis)

Its all very well done, and deliberately overdone, accentuated. Acutely, and intensely, and almost pathologically, observed.

Sylvia  – played beautifully by Anne Raitt – is secretary and carer. But unfulfilled. Needs some sex. Wants some touch. But the 2 blokes she’s shyly flirting it on with are useless.

Here she is with hippy-trippy Norm from Scunthorpe

So sweet isn’t she? “I’m the President of Venezuela”. But its not going to happen with Norm. He’s too moggy mongrel. She needs a pedigree chum. Not a Norm, with his manifest Mike Leighisms (finger twitching, facial ticc-ing, hair twiddling, mumble muttering, nibbling out crumbs of words around the edges of barely audible or intelligible sentences)

Next up is Peter. “One has to learn a language for communication” says Teacher Peter. A language he patently hasn’t got. Arrested Aspergers I reckon (afflicts numerous Mike Leigh characters) He’s tangling her up in his heady “conversational gambits” abstraction. “I don’t think conversational gambits are ever much use, they seem to me to be an evasion of what is going on” she says astutely.

Give her a kiss Pete – for Gods sake!

What a dismal disconnect that was. He couldn’t talk the talk. Couldn’t touch her touch. And the walk to that kiss was like a man condemned to some kind of sense death. He’s having to run his embarrassment towards the door, the tail of failure flaccidly limped between his legs. And Sylvia, although disappointed, is not defeated. She’s stronger than he is. Seeing him out, she’s already over him.

Anne Raitt’s authenticates Sylvia somewhere quite deep and unpantomimed inside. She doesn’t undermine – by overplaying – her pathos with too much farcicality (a fault that befalls the other characters and makes them too caricatured to be entirely credible) (unfortunately, this is a persistent failing in nearly every Mike Leigh film I’ve seen: actors lock themselves down and in parodic assemblages of grotesque traits, tics, and tendencies)

Anne Raitt’s Sylvia, hair stuffed up tight in a Bronte bun, that gap in her front teeth: is an embodiment of stoical Jane Eyre like grace, and shy subversiveness, flirting and daring herself to break out of all this self-absorbed torpor. Self-consciousness becomes self-awareness in her, a kind of self-possession that is not entirely caught up or contained (by useless blokes, and clueless bosses, and demented sisters)

Doubt I’ll want to sit through this bleakery again. Its like watching a load of shy mice twitching snuffly silences into one another that are always landing too far away to reach any touchable connection. From out of the inaudible comes only muffle and mumble, a mouse-squeak of the barely expressible.

The disconnect between these repressed characters feels like its being controlled on remote, and somebody (Mike Leigh, you bastard) keeps hitting the mute button.

But of course it was a shy-er time back then. There were many, and mainly mostly, only bleak moments to be had in 1971. I was there. I can vouch for it. I was one. Of them. Of these.

Dir: Mike Leigh, UK


Fanny and Alexander (1982)


We’re with all the Ekdhal’s having a 1907 family Xmas. The sleighs in the snow are jingle belling. There’s dancing around in a long line of holdy hands. The servants are being allowed to feast with their Masters and Mistresses. I must have felt a kind of sentimental need for this Xmassy theatricality the first time i saw it. But now it leaves me feeling left out in the cold.

And I’m not really warming into it.

I’d loved Best Intentions (Bergmans autobiographical film about his tempestuous parents) This hasn’t got anything like the same snap crackle and pop.

About half way through the 5 hours i’m thinking of giving up. So I rush through the last 2 hours (skipping forward through most of the supernatural guff especially)

So whats not happened for me here?

No real empathy for the boy Alexander (and his Fanny sister is just there to look nice)

No real sympathy for the characters. Too many nasty bastards. Nasty Uncle Carl’s abusive loathing of his “nitwit”wife. Nasty Uncle Gustav’s casual sexual abuse of pretty maidservants (in which his dumpy wife appears to be colluding in) The Nasty Bishop’s abusive cold “Christian” torture of defenseless kids (Alexander gets caned and locked away)

Most mise en scenes seem too static, like stuffy theatrical stage sets. And the frame of each shot gets stuffed up in sit-still inertness. I kept waiting for something to be said that might make me want to sit there with them and feel interested or included enough to listen.

It felt like I was watching a stagey made-for-TV (which it was) frocks and flounces bit of soapy schmaltz. And throw in some supernatural hoo-doo voo-doo to give all that inertness a big push over into metaphysical melodrama.

I can’t for the life of me see what I ever saw in this. Perverse how perceptions turn and tilt. As Alex Cox wrote in The Guardian, its “a mishmash of posh tosh”. He liked it even less than me.

Dir: Ingmar Bergman, Sweden