Stella Cadente (Lluís Miñarro, 2014)

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Lluís Miñarro’s opulent and riotous Stella Cadente (which means ‘falling star’) is being released on DVD in the UK next week courtesy of Second Run.

On the surface an account of the short reign of King Amadeo I of Spain in the early 1870s – although this is a film where surfaces can be deceptive – Stella Cadente also functions as a metaphor for contemporary Spain and its ongoing state of crisis. But this is far from being a fossilised heritage drama – the afore-mentioned deceptive surfaces are manifested via a state of Wonderland-like limbo within the walls of the palace, and Miñarro laces the film with perverse humour and surreal juxtapositions (if I recall correctly, Àlex Brendemühl’s Amadeo is dancing to the anachronistic sound of 1970s French chanson in the above image). I was rather bemused by the ‘busy-ness’ of the film when I saw it at EIFF in 2014 (my Eye for Film review can be found here) but liked it sufficiently to import the Spanish DVD the following year – its chief pleasures are sparky performances by Brendemühl and Bárbara Lennie (who plays Amadeo’s wife, María Victoria), and the sense of reality being challenged by illusion in the layered theatricality created by Miñarro (for me, this confusion of reality versus illusion – in combination with the royal milieu – brought Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño / Life is a Dream to mind, although the director didn’t seem overly keen on the comparison when I asked about it during the Q&A). As I noted in my review, the film also includes my favourite subtitle of that year: “Set these rabbits free!”

Second Run’s presentation also includes one of Miñarro’s documentaries, Familystrip (2009) – while his parents have their portrait painted, the director converses with them about their lives, respective childhoods, raising a family in post-War Spain, and the social changes undergone by the country during their lifetimes. It combines oral history with a deeply affectionate cine-portrait of his family. You can buy the DVD directly from Second Run (it is also available from other retailers).

10,000 Km (Carlos Marques-Marcet, 2014)

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Carlos Marques-Marcet’s feature debut, 10,000 Km (also known as Long Distance), won him the ‘Best New Director’ award at the Goyas in 2015 – the film is available to view on Mubi UK for the next month. The use of social media and new technology onscreen is often cringeworthy but Marques-Marcet and co-writer Clara Roquet on the whole manage to utilise familiar forms of online interaction in a naturalistic way, and create an immersive experience – technology becomes both a point of connection and something that heightens different kinds of distance when a couple (Natalia Tena and David Verdaguer) try to maintain a relationship over the course of a year apart. The film is essentially a two-hander, and I wrote in my review from 2014 that:

Tena and Verdaguer make what could have been an inert series of monologues (we often see them as the other character would, meaning that they are talking direct to screen) into conversations with dramatic and emotional heft. […] That we see neither of them outside of their respective domestic spaces illustrates both the hermetically-sealed nature of Alex and Sergi’s relationship (they are each other’s world) and the limits of their interactions when they are so far apart. The time difference means that their communications are rarely spontaneous, instead becoming a rote series of appointments that make the lack of physical contact glaringly apparent – it is difficult to slow dance with a laptop (although they do try).

The rest of my review can be found at Eye for Film. Take advantage of the film’s appearance on Mubi because a) it’s a well-made romantic drama that is imbued with emotional veracity, and b) there is no UK DVD (although the Spanish DVD has optional English subtitles).

My Name Is Salt (Farida Pacha, 2013)

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The rather dry synopsis of ‘a documentary about salt production’ doesn’t really do justice to (or offer enticement to see) Farida Pacha’s documentary, which closely observes the rhythms and motions of one family on the salt marshes of Gujarat in India, following their routines during the eight months of the year that they spend cultivating and harvesting salt crystals before the annual monsoon season washes everything away. I like films that show the mechanics and processes of work / creation and this stark but beautiful film (a reflection of the landscape in which it takes place) was one of my favourites at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2014. By chance, I’ve just spotted that it is available to rent on BFI Player. My Eye for Film review from 2014 can be found here. You can also find further information on the film’s website.

El Movimiento / The Movement (Benjamín Naishtat, 2015)

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A heads up: another film I saw in Gijón last year, El Movimiento, is currently available to watch on Mubi UK (films stay on that platform for 30 days) – here. After my original viewing last November (without subtitles), I wrote that:

Set in Argentina in 1835 (by weird coincidence the same year that Aferim! is set) in the aftermath of what the festival catalogue tells me was the emancipation war of the Provincias Unidas del Río de la Plata, a fratricidal conflict develops while the new administration settles in. Several armed groups are wandering the Pampa, looking for resources but each also claims to be the legitimate representative of El Movimiento. The leader of one of these groups, known simply as el Señor (Pablo Cedrón), presents himself with the language of idealism and the moral high ground but unleashes hideously violent acts via his henchmen. Shot in black and white, the film is visually very striking – the lighting is very high contrast (it mainly seemed to rely on light sources within the frame), casting jet-black shadows across the numerous close-ups of faces, and at times it looks almost like a painting. The soundtrack is also unusual given the era in which the film takes place because it includes electronic sounds (late in the film, a truck and a motorbike also cross the back of the frame) which build to a low rumbling threat – it becomes quite oppressive.

I re-watched it the other night (it’s only 70 minutes) and would recommend catching it while it’s on Mubi – the running time makes it unlikely to get a theatrical release in the UK. I’m glad that I caught up with it again. I have also found a video of a Q&A (in English) with writer-director Benjamín Naishtat at a screening in New York.

 

Review: Black (Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, 2015)

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Out in the UK (cinemas and VOD) on 19th August, Black is a Romeo and Juliet-style tale of rival street gangs and immigrant communities in contemporary Belgium. I saw the film last year in Gijón and although I felt strongly (negative) about its depiction of sexual violence, it nonetheless has an undeniably strong sense of visual style and energy – its duo of Morrocan-Belgian directors demonstrate cinematic flair in abundance and an adept deployment of music – and two engaging performances from the non-professional leads, Aboubakr Bensaïhi and Martha Canga Antonio. My review from Gijón for Eye for Film:

 

Review: Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry, 2015)

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Queen of Earth was one of my favourite films last year (I saw it in April 2015 at the D’A Festival in Barcelona) and I’d been hoping that it would get UK distribution – as I said back in December, “this kind of film should be catnip to independent cinemas”. It is on limited release and VOD from today but if it’s not showing at a cinema near you (it isn’t showing anywhere near me), a Masters of Cinema dual format DVD/Blu-ray release will also be available from the 11th July. Prior to seeing Queen of Earth I was only familiar with Elisabeth Moss via Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake (I haven’t seen Mad Men), but between those two performances she marks herself out as someone whose work should be followed. She and Katherine Waterston (also excellent) clearly relished the opportunity to be put through the emotional wringer on camera – both deliver nuanced performances in a psychologically astute and darkly funny look at the deep bonds of female friendship and the damage that can be wrought by those closest to you. My 2015 Eye for Film review:

Nobody Knows Anybody will be relatively quiet for the rest of the summer. Back in May – when I decided that I would change my approach to the Carlos Saura Challenge – I made reference to the upheaval that my place of work undergoes like clockwork each summer. Three days later I discovered that this year the upheaval would be more unsettling than I had anticipated. I am one of the lucky ones because my job is intact – although my team has been reduced by 20% through existing vacancies being written off and some of my colleagues reducing their hours – but there are a lot of ongoing job cuts here and morale is low. Between that and the spectacle of my country deciding to flush itself down the toilet in slow motion, I’m not much in the mood for watching films at the moment – or writing about them.

Overlord (Stuart Cooper, 1975)

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I wrote about Overlord almost two years ago for Big Picture Magazine in the context of their ‘Lost Classic’ strand – the film had recently been released on Blu-ray by Criterion and was therefore generating some buzz, although I had been unaware of the film or its growing reputation until I watched it on Mubi and subsequently went looking for more information. Anyway, my short piece can be found here:

The reason that I’m posting the link now is that Criterion have just released the film on their new UK Blu-ray line (a DVD (not Criterion) is also available – I bought one back in 2014), which came to my attention via this detailed article by Paul Duane at Mostly Film. Stuart Cooper’s 1969 short film, A Test of Violence – mentioned in that article – is on Youtube.

Reprint: Tren de sombras / Train of Shadows (José Luis Guerin, 1997)

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I originally wrote about Guerin’s Tren de sombras / Train of Shadows on the old blog in February 2014. I am substantially revising that post for this entry in my Reprint series because I have partially rewatched the film this evening (I watched the opening 10 minutes or so and then the last 40 minutes) and subsequently reconsidered at least one element of my earlier piece.

I originally watched Guerin’s film because it had been mentioned multiple times in relation to El Futuro / The Future (Luis López Carrasco, 2013), in Spanish coverage at least, and having not seen the film I wasn’t sure what was being referenced. But it could also stand as a companion piece with Aita (José María de Orbe, 2010) – which I watched for the first time shortly before watching Tren de sombras – focusing as it does on a combination of (apparent) archival footage and a grand house. The connection to El Futuro is the recreation of an era, not simply representing the past but constructing a film that looks as if it was made in the era depicted. Guerin’s film is almost wordless and the only contextualisation for what we see are the opening intertitles explaining that in 1930, amateur filmmaker Gérard Fleury made a home movie in the grounds of his house, a film that would be his last as he died a few months later in mysterious circumstances while filming on a nearby lake. The intertitles also tell us that film had been in such a fragile condition that it was in no state be projected but that it has now been restored.

Back in 2014, I thought that I had misunderstood the French intertitles (there were no English subtitles on the format that I watched) precisely because I initially thought that they had managed to reassemble the 1930s family film when in actual fact Guerin recreated it (something that becomes apparent as the film progresses – so after a certain point I thought that I had confused ‘restored’ and ‘recreated’). As it happens, my French was better than I thought and the opening intertitles are a deliberate piece of misdirection on Guerin’s part. Conceived when the centenary of cinema was approaching, Tren de sombras was a manifestation of Guerin’s desire to explore the origins of filmmaking and a kind of cinematic immersion. The film’s title is a reference to a line from Maxim Gorky’s essay ‘The Kingdom of Shadows’ about his experience of watching moving pictures (by the Lumière brothers) for the first time in 1896 (there is an English translation of that text, here). It might be more accurate to say that Guerin created – as opposed to recreated (because I’m not sure that there is any Fleury family film other than the one shot by Guerin) – a realistic representation of 1930s filmmaking. It’s a testament to the quality of this reconstruction that it is perfectly believable as a 1930s film – indeed a number of reviewers have taken it at face value and refer to the film as making use of ‘found footage’.
The film opens with this 20 minute ‘home movie’, showing Fleury’s extended family at play in the grounds of their home and the surrounding countryside in the summer of 1930. We then switch to ‘the present’ and the nearby town (now in colour), before moving into the grounds of the Fleury home and then the house itself (the interior of which is not seen in the 1930s segment). It is at this point that Guerin’s film foreshadows aspects of Aita; although this house is evidently inhabited, the attention to textures, patterns, reflections – as well as the use of doorways and mirrors to frame our view and the ‘layering’ of the image (by which I mean that the depth of field alters, allowing us deeper into an image) – reminded me of the later film. This sequence is extraordinarily lush with rich colours and patterns in the interior of the house and verdant greenery outside – in conjunction with the music on the soundtrack, it put me in mind of the kind of magical otherness that I associate with Powell and Pressburger productions. The detailed layering and framing hints at what is yet to come, as Guerin and his camera turn detective and revisit the 1930s footage to peel away its layers and reveal secrets within.

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In almost a cross between Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and the kind of analysis that the Zapruder film has been subjected to, Guerin slows, replays, freeze frames, and enlarges different sequences of the film to follow the sightlines of those on camera. This gives new emphasis to the play of shadow and light at the back of the image and brings hidden connections and relationships to the surface. Guerin effectively plays with the language and form of cinema on the screen. The film is broken down to its constituent parts and then put back together with the grain of the image acting as a ‘witness’ to the supposed veracity of what we’re presented with, when in fact it is another layer of the show constructed by the director (the film was degraded by hand during the post-production and editing stages). The sequences that ‘reveal’ the most (shadows of simmering passions and traces of a possible love triangle) are then performed in front of us anew in colour, which is quite jarring. The use of colour in the recreation is the point at which the fakery seems apparent – I am slightly confused that those reviewers who take the 1930s footage as genuine don’t notice that it is the same actors (namely Juliette Gautier and Ivon Orvain) who appear in colour, although with some deliberately exaggerated elements of costume and make-up. In the colour section the camera moves between the different fields of view within the image, illustrating the layering of the image (and again demonstrating the importance of depth of field). As with Aita, at the end of the film I felt like I had just watched a magic show.

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There is a French boxset (this one) containing Guerin’s Innisfree (1990), Tren de sombras, and Unos fotos en la cuidad de Sylvia / Some Photos in the City of Sylvia (2007) with optional English subtitles on all of the films.

Iberodocs 2016

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The 3rd edition of Iberodocs takes place in Edinburgh later this week from Wednesday 4th – Sunday 8th and there is plenty in their programme to recommend. Of the films I’ve seen, I’d recommend Llévate mis amores (which was my favourite documentary at last year’s EIFF), O Futebol and No Cow on the Ice – and also the shorts Ser e voltar (which is paired with the latter feature – both are by Galician filmmakers) and Sin Dios ni Santa María (which appears in the main shorts programme) – but I’ve also heard good things about Rio Corgo and Volta à terra, so I think that the festival is pretty jam-packed with things worth seeing. I have previously reviewed (in relation to different festivals) three of the films that are being shown and I have written another three this past weekend. I will add the links below as they are published over at Eye for Film.

These are likely to be my last reviews for a while, but I hope to get back to writing on here regularly.

Update: Carlos Saura Challenge

Carlos Saura Challenge

I am changing my tactics in relation to working my way through Carlos Saura’s filmography. I ground to a halt more than a year ago having originally started in 2013 but only having watched 10 of his films (around 25% of his entire career). I have since watched a couple more but haven’t written about them – I think I need to have a time constraint involved in order to keep going but not one so rigid that it becomes a routine chore. I also think that what I’ve done to date has been written over such an elongated period of time that I would be better to start again from the beginning with a different format. What I have in mind is similar to the Almodóvarthon I had on the old blog in August 2011 with something published on each of the films in a concentrated time frame – but, given that Saura has made almost twice as many films as Almodóvar, realistically it will need to be spread over longer than one month (maybe 5 – 6 weeks). It will take me several months to watch all of the films and write something about each of them so that they can be posted sequentially within the designated weeks. Longtime readers will know that my place of employment goes through some sort of managerial disruption virtually every summer, so – taking that into consideration – November seems like a reasonable month to aim for (all other non-blog circumstances permitting). [UPDATE: events referred to in this post mean that November will not be possible – so it will likely be in early 2017 instead]

UPDATE (May 2017): It’s looking increasingly unlikely that I’ll continue the challenge in the manner I intended – i.e. to write something about each film, and then post everything sequentially over a number of weeks. The challenge came about because I wanted to address what felt like a big gap in my knowledge of Spanish cinema, given the length and variety of Saura’s career. I am continuing to work my way through the films – and have already rewritten the original 9 posts, plus 1 completely new one – but I think that I have to accept that watching and writing are two separate things, and that watching the 39 films may have to stand as the fulfilment of the challenge (rather than writing an individual analysis of each of them). I had thought that I could use the framework of the challenge to get myself back into the habit of writing but now think that re-starting a (large) project with which I previously didn’t manage to maintain momentum is probably not an advisable tactic. I may end up writing something about clusters of the films – because there are definite groupings within Saura’s filmography – but for the time being I’m going to draw a line under my original aim, and just continue watching as an end in itself.