Tokyo Story: a study of social and economic change in Japan during the 1950s

Yasujiro Ozu, “Tokyo Story / Tokyo monogatari” (1953)

Under the precise and careful direction of Yasujiro Ozu, this family soap opera becomes a character study of Tokyo and Japan during reconstruction in the wake of the devastation and poverty left behind by World War II, and the impact the reconstruction had on social and cultural values at both the individual and the immediate collective (family) level. An elderly couple travel from their home in a rural fishing village to Tokyo to visit their children and their families. The couple (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) are perturbed to be met with a range of quite negative emotions and reactions from exasperation, indifference, rudeness and selfish cruelty from their GP doctor son’s family and their daughter, a businesswoman running a hair salon. The couple are shunted from one family to another and at one point during their visit are dumped in a holiday spa where guests have all-night parties that disturb the older folks’ sleep. The only person who is glad to see them and who helps them become accustomed to the fast and glitzy pace of Tokyo is their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara). The grandparents decide to go home through Osaka where they plan to meet their youngest son but the grandmother’s health begins to fail rapidly and the couple narrowly arrive back home before the woman falls into a fatal coma.

The plot is not remarkable but what holds the story together is the dialogue which does all the work of advancing the plot, portraying character and underlining the process of change and the inevitability of death. Through the interactions of three generations of the one family, Ozu examines the effects of Westernisation and technological and economic changes and progress have on Japanese culture and traditions. Respect for the elderly and a sense of mutual obligation and help are disappearing, to be replaced by the pursuit of self-interest and immediate material gratification. The couple’s sons put work ahead of their own needs and those of their families. Daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) thinks only of herself, her business and pursuing wealth. Interestingly though, the children and their families have not achieved the success they had hoped for – the doctor and his family live in a suburb of Tokyo, not in the centre of the city as the grandparents expected – and there is a sense of disappointment among the children that they have not done as well as they had hoped for.

Ozu’s technique of filming scenes at the level at which people sit on tatami mats in houses or on verandahs imparts an almost voyeuristic intimacy to the drama and helps to bring out the underlying tensions in the film as the grandparents come to realise that their children might consider them a burden. The grandparents also get no relief in trying to connect with their grandchildren who angrily spurn them; in one significant scene, the grandmother muses about her younger grandson and what he might become as an adult, as the child ignores her completely. This scene takes on added sadness as events in the film roll out to the grandmother’s disadvantage. Important events tend to happen off-screen to the extent that the only time we become aware of most things is when actors talk and discuss these occurrences. This has the effect of not only pushing the narrative on but also revealing the character and morality of the people discussing the issues.

The climactic moment comes after the grandmother’s funeral when Noriko and her young sister-in-law nearly come to blows over the behaviour of the older children at their mother’s funeral and wake. Noriko persuades her sister to accept that the children have their own lives to lead and that the separation of older parents and adult children is inevitable; while this explanation appears to calm down the younger woman, Noriko’s own life as a lonely widow dedicating herself to caring for her parents-in-law would appear to suggest that Noriko might not necessarily believe in what she says. Noriko’s obliging manner and constant smile seem to mask a very real pain born from a life of suffering under her alcoholic husband and perhaps previously from a family background in which daughters were brought up to be strictly subservient to husbands, no matter how well or how badly the husbands treated them. One senses there may be some desperation on Noriko’s part to try to help her parents-in-law because they may represent the family she never really had.

The film appropriately ends on a dark note when the grandfather, left all alone by his children and daughter-in-law who must resume their normal working lives, must ponder living alone without his beloved wife. Hints in earlier parts of the film suggest he will turn to drink again to soothe his sorrows. What this seems to imply is that the changes and progress coming to Japan might not be all shiny and good for the Japanese people: the changes are likely to lead to isolation, loneliness and dependency on drugs like alcohol for millions of Japanese just to get through the day. While everyone accepts change and that nothing will last forever, at the same time no-one seems to think that with rapid change, opportunities to improve people’s lives will appear and should be seized upon. To allow an elderly man to live on his own with only drink for company is certainly cruel and would not have been tolerated in Japan before the war. At this point Ozu may be questioning the traditional attitude of accepting change with grace and detachment, when the change that comes affects not only individuals, families and groups in adverse ways but affects society to the extent that its very identity and fabric change, and what people value changes as well. What Japan becomes and will value, will not be a continuation from what made the country in the first place.

Slow and leisurely as it is, and though the characters tend to be stereotypical, the film certainly bears watching a few times for Ozu’s messages about change, the inevitability of death and the fragility of life to be absorbed, and for landscape scenes of a past Japan that themselves illustrate rapid technological, economic and social change. That the film is ambivalent about the kind of change that is occurring in Japan, and whether the accepted Japanese attitude towards change is necessarily ideal for individuals, families or even society as a whole, thus forcing audiences to question what sort of change they can or should accept, makes it relevant to audiences even today, within and outside Japan.

Bad Tales: voyeuristic survey of dysfunctional families in alienation

Damiano and Fabio d’Innocenzo, “Bad Tales / Favolacce” (2020)

A survey of three families living in a dull suburban estate on the outskirts of Rome, “Bad Tales” could have been a critical indictment of the lure of the Italian version of the middle-class American Dream and the consequences people and families suffer when their efforts to achieve that dream fall far short of their ambitions and aspirations. Busting your guts out and endangering your health to earn the money to afford the material goods and the lifestyle you believe you and your family deserve, neglecting your loved ones, your family bonds under strain, your children suffering from alienation or bullying and turning to drugs, gangs or other dangerous forms of solace … all these scenarios could form a universal if tragic narrative that exposes the reality of the capitalist scam that far too many generations of families have fallen victim to, with casualties in the form of domestic violence, addictions and suicides. Instead “Bad Tales” turns out to be a voyeuristic peek at three families that are either dysfunctional or broken in their own way, with an underlying suggestion that the parents alone are largely responsible for the ruin they bring to their domestic environments. The children don’t get off very lightly either: on the verge of adolescence, alienated and emotionally repressed, the kids are presented as both knowing and naive, and ultimately out of their depth or helpless in situations where they most need a steady anchor and support.

The Gothic tale with its black humour unfolds in three sub-plots, the main one of which revolves around the Placido family. Bruno (Elio Germano) has recently become unemployed and his frustration and resentment at having to be a house husband while his wife Dalila (Barbara Chichiarelli) must be the breadwinner drive the conflict among him, Dalila and their two children Dennis and Alessia. Both parents are astonishingly cruel, lax and inconsistent in their treatment of the children. Bruno in particular behaves in a passive-aggressive way guaranteed to confuse the hell out of his kids and keep them, especially Alessia, highly anxious: he forces both of them to recite their grades to dinner guests; he bursts an inflated swimming pool in the middle of the night (because he is fed up with neighbours’ kids inviting themselves over and using the pool) and blames his action on gypsies; and he bullies his son openly in front of the sensitive Alessia. The children have a cousin, Viola, who is treated just as sadistically by her parents; they discover she has head lice after using the Placidos’ pool so they shave off all her hair and she is forced to wear a wig to school. Viola is interested in a boy, Geremia, at school: the boy appears shy and socially inept, and lives with his father Emilio Guerrini (Gabriel Montesi) in rather impoverished conditions, with no other relatives. Also living on the estate is a much older teenage girl Vilma (Ileana d’Ambra) who has a child out of wedlock but some time during the course of the film moves out of home to live with the baby’s father. The couple decide to leave the estate with their baby and head for the city but parenting and looking for work prove exhausting and the young family falls into despair.

Much of the film is taken up with character exposition and the dynamics of the individual families, and the plot only really starts moving once the four children, having to bear the brunt of their parents’ repressed anger and disappointment, and being surrounded by adults obsessed with their own self-importance, rebel. The rebellion is sparked by a school-teacher who clearly seems unable to comprehend the effect of his teaching on his impressionable students. The homemade bomb plot is thwarted by a visiting relative of Geremia’s and the police. Dennis and Alessia resort to even more desperate measures, again aided by the school-teacher. The tragedy that befalls the apparently perfect nuclear family of the Placidos is contrasted by Geremia and Emilio: the two may be an unconventional family, and Emilio acts more like an older pal rather than as a stereotypically patriarchal figure, but there is warmth in the relationship. For all the rather morally dubious decisions Emilio makes – he encourages Geremia to transmit measles to Viola by giving the boy condoms! – he quickly realises that a toxic atmosphere surrounds Geremia at school and among his class-mates, and the two bunk off from the estate to doss down with a cousin in his Rome apartment.

Apart from Bruno and Emilio, both played well by Germano and Montesi respectively, most characters are sketchily developed and the children’s characters in particular seem rather flat and one-dimensional. Bruno remains a coward at heart while Emilio tries his best in his own limited way to be both Mum and Dad to a son who needs more help in his social and intellectual development than the father can provide. Very few characters evoke much sympathy from the audience, with the result that people will not care when tragedy strikes the Placidos.

With such material as families in crisis and on their own in dealing with frustration, conflict and social alienation, the d’Innocenzo brothers end up floundering with “Bad Tales”. The film has no clear plot until more than halfway through its length and audiences will not warm to the adult and child characters. It really needs a better background context that throws more focus on the school-teacher and his malign influence on Dennis and Geremia: why does the school-teacher encourage the children to do what they do, what is his motivation, and does he share in the frustrations and failed dreams and hopes of the children’s parents? And for that matter, where is the government and those institutions that should be helping the families and showing them how to resolve their conflicts and issues, and how to deal with disappointments and failures in their lives?

The Goddess of Fortune: how the passage of time and random events change people and relationships

Ferzan Özpetek, “The Goddess of Fortune / La Dea Fortuna” (2019)

On the surface, this very visually stunning and colourful film appears to be a heart-warming comedy that with some adjustments could be remade by Hollywood. Delve a bit deeper into its narrative and its characters, and the film reveals a great deal about the nature of families, both conventional and unconventional, the passage of time and what it can do to people in love, and the necessity of change and random events in shaking up old patterns and routines, and revealing their weaknesses – and the pain and emotion that emerge as a result. Arturo (Stefano Accorsi) and Alessandro (Edoardo Leo) have been a couple for 15 years despite their different backgrounds, Arturo being a translator who once aspired to be a writer and academic but failed at both, and Alessandro being a plumber who brings in most of their income. The two are part of a happy little community, all living in the same neighbourhood, of various misfits including a married couple, one of whom suffers memory loss and must be reminded of who he is each day, a transgender woman and an African refugee. Arturo and Alessandro’s relationship seems to have hit the rocks for some reason, the two no longer feel the passion they used to have for each other, and they’re starting to get on each other’s nerves. All of a sudden, out of the blue, an old mutual friend, Annamaria (Jasmine Trinca), turns up at a party with her two children Martina (Sara Ciocca) and Sandro (Edoardo Brandi) in tow. She asks Arturo and Alessandro to mind the kids while she stays in hospital for a few days for tests.

As might be expected, the presence of the two children upturns Arturo and Alessandro’s routine and the two men have difficulty adjusting to their roles as foster parents, even though the arrangement is temporary. The neighbours believe that the children will help the two men get on better but in fact the children inadvertently drive the men’s relationship to boiling point. Alessandro discovers Arturo has been having an affair with a painter behind his back. Annamaria is forced to stay in hospital for longer than she had been led to believe. Her health goes from bad to worse and the two men, now unable to stand each other’s company, contact Annamaria’s next of kin – her mother Elena (Barbara Alberti), in Palermo – to see if she can take care of the children. Elena agrees and the men take the kids on a ferry trip to Sicily to meet their grandmother who turns out to be a harsh conservative Catholic matriarch of a noble family in decline.

The plot is not outstanding but what makes it work is the energy and enthusiasm the lead actors throw into their characters. Arturo and Alessandro become much more than two gay men having mid-life crises in their personal and professional lives; they become two very real individuals with particular faults and quirks that they must confront and come to terms with if they are to revive their relationship and continue living together, and at the same time care for Annamaria’s children. Accorsi and Leo give what may well be the performances of their careers in fleshing out these characters and giving them complex emotional lives; Leo in particular does outstanding work in portraying a gruff working-class plumber whose outward toughness belies a sensitive emotional nature. Trinca doesn’t have a lot to do as Annamaria and most of what audiences learn about her come very late in the film when the character has disappeared from the scene. The child actors do what they can but their characters aren’t quite bratty enough to give their foster parents the headaches needed to push their relationship into open conflict so there is something of a forced quality to the plot.

Özpetek’s direction emphasises the use of close-ups to capture emotion and character in his actors’ faces, and makes excellent use of the film’s settings in Rome and Palermo. Rome is portrayed as a vibrant, sunny and colourful place, where people of all backgrounds and proclivities can come together and form impromptu families and communities. Palermo looks rather sleepy and provincial, and the scenes set in Elena’s dilapidated mansion seem to feature Mafia character stereotypes. Here the film takes a dark comedy turn as Arturo and Alessandro discover rather more about Annamaria’s family and what made her run away from home and become a flighty single mum than they would have liked. At this point the film ratchets up to another level and becomes more sombre Gothic drama than comedy as the two men try to save Annamaria’s children from falling into the same fate that befell Annamaria and her long-lost brother.

The film’s resolution is actually rather less happy and secure than it at first appears, and one can imagine after the credits start coming up that the two men and the children will still have to work out how they can all live together without driving one another completely nuts. At least Arturo and Alessandro come to realise that they must put their self-interests aside if they are to make their relationship work and be able to care for the children.

While the plot tends to be rather patchy and has the look of several skits sewn together with a few seams and loose ends showing, the film’s characters and themes hold them together. A strong theme is acceptance of the random curve-balls that life throws at people and helps to make them and their connections with one another stronger – if they recognise the opportunity presented. The film makes constant reference to the Goddess of Fortune who throws such curve-balls at Arturo and Alessandro. The challenge for them both is how they use chance occurrences in their lives as opportunities for growth – provided they recognise them as such in time.

La Carnada: one boy’s road to Hell paved with love and concern in a spider web of exploitation

Josh Soskin, “La Carnada” (2014)

In a poverty-stricken town in Mexico not far from the border with the United States, 13-year-old Manny (Angel Soto Jr) is saddled with the burden of caring for his severely diabetic bedridden mother after his older sister Daniela makes off with the money needed to pay the pharmacist for Mum’s insulin. Desperate, Manny meets Beto (Carlos Valencia) who offers the boy an easy way to make money. “I’m not a mule”, Manny says but Beto reassures him he’s not going to force him to carry large loads of drugs in his stomach or make him do anything the teenager doesn’t want to do – he understands the boy wants to help his mother. Next day, Beto takes Manny to a ghost town near the border, gives him supplies and a small amount of cocaine, and tells him to go to a far mountain where he will meet with some others who will pay him. Then Manmy’s work will be done and he’ll have enough money to get his mother the insulin she needs.

So begins Manny’s journey into adulthood, impelled by the love he has for his mother and his desire to help her after everyone else they know and care for has abandoned them. While Soto essentially plays Manny as one-dimensional and rather blank, the character’s mix of maturity beyond his years, intelligence, resourcefulness – and alas, naivety – comes out very strongly. Unfortunately Manny’s qualities are not enough to save him from Beto’s manipulation and devious plot of using the boy as a decoy (hence the film’s title) to draw US border patrol police away from the real drug mules working at night. Unbeknownst to Manny, Beto is prepared to use him and sacrifice him – and perhaps many other children like Manny who are driven by poverty into becoming foot-soldiers for drug cartels – to make money and to please his overlords in the gangs.

In the space of a few moments, a family’s desperate situation of poverty, unemployment and abandonment drives one of its members – and an innocent, trusting one at that – into a spider’s web of deceit and exploitation through his love and concern for his mother. This is surely one of life’s great ironies that one person’s particular road to Hell is paved with care and concern for a loved one. Few people would want to be in the same situation as Manny – and yet for Manny, the decision he makes to try to save his mother seems the most logical and straightforward.

The acting is quite good for a short film on a limited budget. Soto does adequately for his role while Valencia is slick enough as the devious Beto and Peter Reinert plays border patrol officer Davey efficiently and smoothly. Viewers also see something of the life and vitality of a small Mexican town, poor though it is, and how it contrasts with the soulless life of the American town on the other side of the border through the convenience store where Davey buys lunch. The harsh desert environment echoes the harshness of life in Manny’s home town and the isolation in which Americans on the other side of the border live.

Fortunately for Manny, when Davey finds him in the desert, the officer knows straight away that the boy is one of many youngsters being used by the drug cartels. But in real life, how many officers would show the same level of concern and compassion for illegal aliens like Manny?

The Silver Brumby: a subdued and unexciting film of human greed and obsession

John Tatoulis, “The Silver Brumby” (1993)

Notable mainly for featuring a very young Russell Crowe near the beginning of his acting career, this film is framed as a story within a story about the relationship between Australian writer Elyne Mitchell (Caroline Goodall) and her daughter Indi (Amiel Daemion), and how Indi learns through listening to Mum and reading her work about the natural world they live in – the world of the Snowy Mountains in the New South Wales / Victorian border region – and the animals that live there and which must contend with the encroachment of humans into their territory. The animals that dominate Elyne Mitchell’s writing are brumbies (feral horses) and in particular, one brumby called Thowra, the eponymous silver brumby who through the series of children’s books, starting with “The Silver Brumby”, founds a dynasty of wild silver horses who become the envy and targets of obsession of the humans living and working in the Snowy Mountains area. What initially starts as an entirely fictional work – the life of Thowra and the pursuit of this silver stallion by someone known only as The Man (Russell Crowe) – takes on a more realistic edge for Indi as she discovers that The Man is based on people she and her Mum know. From then on, as The Man recruits another to assist him to chase down and capture Thowra, Indi and her mother share the same fears that Thowra will lose his freedom, independence and most of all his spirit if his cunning, knowledge and experience of the bush, speed and endurance cannot save him from capture. Inevitably though, the horse ends up being cornered by the humans pursuing him and must risk his life to avoid capture.

The film adopts a subdued approach which highlights the beauty and mystery of the natural environment but does no favours to the original book on which it is based. The significant events of Thowra’s life – his early upbringing, the defeat and death of his sire by upstart stallion The Brolga, and his own challenge to the Brolga when he is full-grown – are dealt with almost as incidental to Thowra’s eventual confrontation with The Man. There is not a great deal about how Thowra gathers together the mares that make up his harem and how he defends them from other stallions and the humans that hunt the Snowy Mountain brumbies. Equally, there is not a lot about how writing “The Silver Brumby” and sharing the story with Indi allow Elyne Mitchell and her daughter to forge a deeper relationship with each other than they might otherwise have had, and how Indi matures and learns about how human greed and obsession not only destroy individual animals and Nature generally, but also diminish humans, isolate them from their roots in Nature and end up destroying them.

The scenery is beautiful and poetic but that is all that can be really said for the film. While the actors do their best, their characters are very underdeveloped and Crowe is given some very laughably poor lines to deliver. The horses used in the film are very good-looking and well-groomed – real brumbies would be scrawny creatures and have a raw edge to them – and perform quite adequately but the sense of grit and living on the edge in a difficult environment (for humans and horses, be they both tame or wild) is absent. This viewer has the impression that the original intentions behind the film were very ambitious but, unlike Thowra who gives everything he has and risks everything – even his life – to preserve his freedom and spirit, the film definitely pulls its punches. What we have is a film that fails to generate much excitement or a sense of danger, and which also does little to suggest that the humans in the film could live with brumbies and Australian fauna and flora in the Snowy Mountains region instead of trying to master and dominate them all.

Awakenings: a spooky Gothic retelling of the classic Henry James story

Bhargav Saikia, “Awakenings” (2015)

Inspired by and closely based on Henry James’ famous novella “The Turn of the Screw”, this short film is conventional in its narration and is notable mainly for its spooky Gothic atmosphere, the growing sense of paranoia and the dissolution between the real world and the spirit world. Nearly all the action in the film takes place at night. Anannya (Prisha Dabas) is a nanny hired to babysit two children Ruhaan (Jairaj Dalwani) and Meera (Palomi Ghosh) in a large mansion. When we first meet Anannya, she is getting the children off to bed. Throughout the evening, while the children are asleep, or are supposed to be asleep, Anannya realises there are visitors to the house, and they are not of the material kind. These visitors exert a strange attraction on the boy Ruhaan and he is drawn out of bed to meet them. To Anannya’s horror, these visitors appear to be the children’s long-dead parents … and they seem intent on bringing Ruhaan into their world.

The dark, shadowy tone of the film, the labyrinthine nature of the mansion (in which Anannya appears to run around in circles and end up in same room where she started) and the constant suggestion that her misgivings and fears are all just a dream – cue the occasions in which Anannya suddenly wakes up in her chair – help to enliven a story that has been told many times before. Details in the film impart an extra of layer of meaning that may or may not be relevant to its story: Dalwani, playing Ruhaan, was in his early adolescent years at the time so the ghostly events around the character Ruhaan may symbolise his awakening as an adult, leaving childhood and Anannya the nanny behind. The two children sleeping in the double bed may or may not suggest an unhealthy closeness that might have existed in their family before the parents died.

The constantly panning camera, following Anannya, induces nausea and a real sense of paranoia and fear. Dabas does good work in a role that could have been very histrionic and which has very little dialogue. The house is a significant character in the film with its many rooms, dark wooden floors and furniture, and passages linking rooms through which Anannya runs (with the camera close behind) to find the menace. Apart from this, the film does not add anything to the original Henry James story that other films haven’t already built on.

Zero: teenage survivalist making a critical decision about her future

Keith and David Lynch, “Zero” (2019)

In a post-apocalyptic world, when robots and humans have fought each other almost to the death in a long drawn-out world and there are few survivors, a father (Nigel O’Neill) teaches his daughter Alice (Bella Ramsey) how to survive on her own in a derelict house with enough food stockpiled to last five years. One day a mystery electro-magnetic pulse cuts off technology and kills the father who is wearing an internal pacemaker. For the next several years, Alice, having been drilled to stay in the house and never to leave it, never to trust anyone and never to allow anyone inside the house, bears up through sheer grit and determination. One day as the fifth year nears its end, Alice comes to a decision about her future and what she will have to do to achieve it.

The film appears to be a proof-of-concept short created to attract attention and garner support for a television series or a full-length movie treatment. Due to a strict budget, the film relies on main actor Ramsey to deliver a convincing performance about a young teenage girl left alone and to find some purpose in living. Ramsey puts in an excellent effort as Alice in a dark and near-monochrome environment. The film has the look (if rather clean) of post-apocalyptic survivalist films like Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” and Konstantin Lopushansky’s “Dead Man’s Letters”. Daily life with nothing to do comes across as harrowing as if Alice had to work at a dead-end job full-time with no time off.

The pace can be a bit slow and leisurely and it only picks up right near the end when Alice has made her decision. At this point the film draws back to show the context into which Alice is walking: she is wading into a world that has become a tabula rasa on which there will be many opportunities for a youngster like her to make a significant mark.

The film has something to say about allowing survivalist rules to dominate your life rather than using them as guidelines; and by extension allowing past tradition, custom and history to dictate future decisions and actions. While Alice’s father tries in his own way to protect his daughter, he ends up turning her into a prisoner bound not only by the physical prison but also by mental bonds (expressed in reminders around the house) and her loyalty to him. At the end, Alice has to decide on whether she will continue to be bound by invisible fetters or not.

Slut: a highly accomplished student film on teenage sexual awareness and the danger it attracts

Chloe Okuno, “Slut” (2014)

Set in the 1970s, this cheesy morality tale is a meeting of Little Red Riding Hood and Southern US small-town Gothica in the style of famous horror films of that period, such “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Carrie”. Heck, there isn’t much in “Slut” that Stephen King would not recognise, from the teenage female main character who is rejected by the cool kids at high school to the narrow-minded and bigoted atmosphere in the town where she lives, to Granny who spends all her days watching cartoons on television, the lone drifter who rolls into town and the spate of serial murders of teenage girls that begins shortly after.

Molly McIntyre plays Maddy, the teenage girl who lives in a ramshackle house with her grandmother (Sally Kirkland) in a rural town and who is ill at ease with the sexually aware girls in her form at high school. The kids laugh at her for her bespectacled look and her dowdy long dresses. One day a stranger (James Gallo) turns up at the shopping mall ice-skating rink and, after observing her and one other lass, a blonde called Jolee (Kasia Pilewicz), tells Maddy that she’s a lot more interesting than the girls who only care about flaunting their bodies and sexuality to attract dates. After some time though, and having caught sight of that stranger one evening going off with Jolee, Maddy determines she’ll try to dress the same way and goes off home to cut the legs off her jeans and put on some diaphanous blouses with the bottoms tied at the waist. Dressed in such provocative clothing, Maddy starts hanging out at various places where the high school boys congregate in the evenings. In the meantime, the stranger tortures Jolee and kills her in a horrifically excruciating way.

The stranger discovers what Maddy has been up to and decides to teach her a lesson by breaking into her home at night and attempting rape and torture. At this point the film becomes violent and grisly, and the cinematography can be dark and murky. In contrast with its slower first half, in which Maddy’s character is delineated, and her surroundings to be quite impoverished culturally, the film’s action from here on is very fast and surprising as Maddy finds deep inner resources in herself as she fights the stranger.

The character stereotypes are so obvious as to be hackneyed and ripe for parody. The story’s setting pays homage to the old 1970s horror films that must have held director Okuno and her friends spellbound as kids. The film’s themes of awakening teenage sexuality and the danger this can put young innocent individuals like Maddy into, the small-minded nature of rural towns and teenagers’ yearning for purpose in their lives that will take them away from the bigotry and alienation of these their home towns may be familiar to fans of such movies but they take on additional resonance in Maddy’s actions against the stranger. Maddy discovers she is much more than just a kid who can transform from dowdy to alluring with a change of clothes; she realises she can be her own woman after all. The irony is that the one fellow who showed her her true potential happened to be a serial rapist and killer.

McIntyre does a great job playing Maddy in all her character transformations while the other actors have too little screen time to do other than just reinforce their character stereotypes. Gallo at least manages to appear charming and supportive, and dangerously deranged at the same time, and the film gives him a motive to change his mind about Maddy and see her as a slut.

While the film’s pace is a bit uneven and maybe its earlier half could be tightened a little more, it has such fun playing with audience’s expectations of what may happen to Maddy and with the various devices and motifs typical of 1970s teenage horror flicks, that it turns out to be very enjoyable to watch. One can scarcely believe that it is the work of a student film director.

After Her: missing-girl parody that leads to a personal transformation

Aly Migliori, “After Her” (2018)

A young man, Callum (Christopher Dylan White), goes in search of a young woman, Hayley (Natalia Dyer), five years after she has disappeared from their small rural community located next to a mysterious forest. It seems that Hayley, bored by the lack of mental stimulation, initially has run off into the woods. As Callum retraces the steps they both took the last time they met five years ago, he finds the mystery black spiny object, shaped a bit like a hand grenade, that Hayley had long ago found and kept, and is transported to an underground cave system in which he apparently experiences the most incredible hallucinations and visions. Callum’s life is much changed after his underground cave explorations and he can never view his ordinary life as a city college student the way he used to again.

Set in lush forest full of shadows and the darkest of dark green tones, in caves and dark tunnels with water running through them, the film has a distinctive look suggestive of layers upon layers of plant growth hiding a terrible secret, of decay and of a strange and monstrous sexuality lying under and close to the surface of the soil. Migliori cites H P Lovecraft’s fiction as an inspiration and the influence shows in a number of scenes featuring running water and strange clouds and shadows rising from it. The cinematography can be very good and film editing that helps to build a rising sense of alarm, even panic, is well done. The actors play their parts as well as they can though they sometimes give the impression of being a bit awkward and not a little confused at what they are supposed to be doing.

The plot is easy to follow but the film’s message and what Hayley is meant to represent are not too clear. It is obvious that Hayley has become something other than the human she used to be what. Has she become a monster or is she aligned with some powerful and ambivalent force in the earth? Are her intentions or those of the beings she represents beneficent to Callum and his people? Why should Callum be so special to her? These questions arise during the course of the 13-minute short but remain unanswered. It could be that the plot can be interpreted on a number of different levels but the plot is so vague and the characters so underdeveloped – no wonder Dyer and White seemed confused at what they were supposed to be doing – that viewers remain in the dark about what is supposed to be happening and what they are supposed to follow and judge.

The film just about holds together thanks to some very good visual shots and Callum being its central figure. Its story is of some significance to its writer-director Aly Migliori but it needs to be told better in a more straightforward way so the audience can more readily identify with Migliori’s intentions.

Pain and Glory: a self-referential film of an artist entering a winter of discontent

Pedro Almodovar, “Pain and Glory” (2019)

A film investigating how creation can be inspired by personal memories and suffering, “Pain and Glory” is a fiction biographical drama, whereby director Almodovar, seemingly on the verge of his twilight years as a director and artist, might be seen as taking stock of his career and the themes that have informed his body of work. In comparison with past work, “Pain and Glory” appears as quite a sombre film though there is still plenty of colour and visual artistic style, and the acting is very restrained.

At the beginning of “Pain and Glory”, famous writer and film director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) has been living hermet-like in his Madrid mansion for several years, his depression and various physical health problems preventing him from doing the work he has long loved to do. During this time he has been caring for his aged mother Jacinta (Julieta Serrano) in her final years. Her death, and a film retrospective dedicated to his past work, featuring his break-out film that also gave actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) his best-known role, prompt Mallo to contact Crespo despite the two not having spoken to each other for 32 years after a bad fall-out during that film’s production. The meeting with Crespo introduces Mallo to heroin, to which the film director becomes addicted after smoking the drug helps to relieve his chronic pains and puts him in a reverie during which past childhood memories return to him. Thereafter, throughout the film, Mallo smokes heroin to rediscover aspects of his childhood of 50 years ago, during which he and his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) move into a grotto that his impoverished father has been able to find in a village and which Jacinta spruces up with the help of local youth Eduardo (Cesar Vicente) who, in exchange for lessons from Salvador in learning to read and write, paints and tiles the walls.

During a later visit to Mallo’s tastefully decorated house, Crespo finds a script “Addiction” that Mallo put aside some years ago and wants to perform it on stage. “Addiction” happens to be about a past lover who had been addicted to heroin and suffered greatly for it. Mallo initially refuses but some time afterwards – and especially after a disastrous Q&A session at the film retrospective during which Mallo and Crespo fight – he relents and Crespo performs the work. By sheer coincidence, a former flame of Mallo’s, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the subject of “Addiction” no less, is visiting Madrid from Buenos Aires, has seen a flyer for the performance, and sees the show. Crespo puts Federico in contact with Mallo and the two meet again, perhaps for the last time. Federico tells Mallo that he got off the heroin, married an Argentine girl, had a family with her and is running a successful restaurant business with his two sons.

After meeting Federico, Mallo resolves to give up the heroin and sort out his medical issues. While waiting for surgery, he and his assistant Mercedes (Nora Navas) visit an art gallery and discover a picture of himself as a child hanging in the gallery. He buys the picture and reads a message on the back of the canvas – written by none other than Eduardo, all those 50 years ago. This remarkable coincidence helps him to resolve to take up film-making once again.

Banderas puts in a remarkable virtuoso performance as Mallo in all his suffering and his petty, self-obsessed behaviour, and the rest of the cast does good work. The flashbacks to Mallo’s past are well done, though an element of mischievous surprise comes at the very end which puts those flashbacks in another light and explains why Jacinta’s eyes seem to change colour as she ages! Apart from the performances and the arresting visual style of the film (which of course indicates good cinematography among other things), there really isn’t much in the film’s narrative that would elevate it to the status of a great film: viewers are no better informed at the end of the film than at the beginning what made Mallo a great film director or his break-out film with Crespo the remarkable work that it was. How Crespo faded out as an actor is not explored; indeed the character disappears from “Pain and Glory” around the halfway point of the film. The episode with Federico is brief and after that character leaves, the film’s narrative marches on to another topic with no more reference to Crespo, Federico and whatever they inspire Mallo to do next.

One gets the impression that “Pain and Glory” is no more than an ordinary and banal story about an artist having a creative mid-life crisis and making a huge fuss out of it. As one character, Dr Galindo (Pedro Casablanc) says, “there are people worse off than you [Mallo]” and that could be advice someone already gave to Almodovar.