The Other Side Of Hope (Toivon Tuolla Puolen)

Aki Kaurismäki’s not covering any new ground with this latest deadpan drama, but if you like any of his earlier films then the chances are you’ll find plenty to enjoy here, too, and I’ll happily champion any work right now that is as empathetic and considerate with regard to Muslims who have desperately fled a war zone as this film is. The story revolves around a Finnish businessman who leaves his wife, wins a lot of money playing poker and then opens a restaurant, as well as a Syrian migrant from Aleppo, who arrives in Helsinki after stowing away on a boat transporting coal and finds himself on the receiving end of the Finnish man’s generosity. There’s irony and droll humour, but in all honesty I was more impressed by the film’s touching, serious, humane moments, of which there are several. I think it’s some way short of Kaurismäki’s best, but it’s pleasantly unassuming and well-meaning and there’s always room for that. (***½)

Stockholm, My Love

It pains me to say this about Mark Cousins, a man whose enthusiasm with regards to cinema is second to none, but this psychogeographical piece about Stockholm lacks the insight with regards to quotidian life, as well as the empathy with people and humour, that made last year’s I Am Belfast such an enjoyable treat to watch. To be fair, he obviously hasn’t set out to make the same film again, though this is a kind of ‘sister’ work, given that it too features a woman (in this case Neneh Cherry) who acts as a kind of tour guide for people who know that a city’s heart and soul and life and stories all lie beyond familiar tourist hotspots. I’m not sure if she is supposed to represent Stockholm in the same way that Helena Bereen represented Cousins’ home in that earlier mix of fiction and non-fiction, but watching Cherry walking around and discussing her memories is captivating enough, even though I felt a building frustration that the filmmaker wasn’t quite getting to grips with the city itself. But it has its moments, if you’re in the right mood. (**½)

A Quiet Passion

High quality biographical drama from the ever-classy Terence Davies, in which Cynthia Nixon delivers an excellent performance as the acerbic, witty, forward-thinking American poet Emily Dickinson. It looks great, as it has wonderful period production design, and it’s often very funny, with Dickinson’s superbly caustic zingers arriving regularly throughout (many of which, if anything, are as good as or better than any line in Whit Stillman’s similarly-impressive Love & Friendship). However Davies and Nixon manage to create a strong sense of Dickinson’s loneliness here as well, and that seems to be more important than the humour; Davies explores the way in which the poet’s lifestyle allowed her the freedom to create, yet she is presented as ultimately unfulfilled, and missing out on something crucial: an intimate relationship. It’s clear that the director sympathises very much with his subject, and there are times in which she feels like she could be a proxy. Surely this film is about the director’s own life and work as much as it is Dickinson’s? Davies seems to be lamenting his own periods of loneliness, his own struggles with religion or of living in a repressive society that is overly-concerned with the church’s view on certain subjects. Many lines in the script and recurring themes reinforce the idea, but the beauty of this film is that it is easily one thing and another… and as a tribute to an artist it is both thoughtful and sincere. (****)

Harmonium (Fuchi ni Tatsu)

Typically, a small home features prominently in this Japanese family drama, in which an ex-con goes to live and work with a man who we later discover is indebted to him, as a result of an unseen act carried out years beforehand. The ex-con, perhaps through desperation, or perhaps – as we discover later – for some other reason, has no shame in imposing himself on the family’s territory, but he quickly begins to show his value, first helping the young daughter with her harmonium lessons and then later developing a friendship of sorts with the mother. Having the action take place in a small, cramped area means that both pre-existing and previously non-existent relationships between these four characters develop quickly, as each struggles to find the privacy they once took for granted (and indeed struggles to cope without it), and as things change between them there’s a grim inevitability that things are going to go wrong at some stage. (When it does happen, director Kōji Fukada deals with two incidents in a rather matter-of-fact, distant manner, which conversely seems to emphasise the oddness of the day in which the incidents take place.) The film is split into two parts; the first, leading up to two terrible events, is suffused with dread, the second – set years later – a suffocating sadness and a sense that a new character’s genuine attempt to put things right is just going to lead somewhere very dark indeed. Good performances all round, and Fukada uses a visual style that’s comparable with (or influenced by) other acclaimed, modern and historic Japanese directors, in which the home and the surrounding urban area are presented without much in the way of photographic bells and whistles. (***½)

Tokyo Idols

Kyoko Miyake’s documentary explores the phenomenon of pop idols and the people who worship them in Japan, which is to say it’s about mostly male otaku of a certain age fawning and obsessing over teenage and pre-pubescent female J-pop singers. In doing so it follows an idol-on-the-rise, Rio Hiiragi (know to her followers as RioRio), as her career begins to take off, and also weaves in plenty of footage of adult men going wild at small-scale concerts, as well as decidedly creepy behaviour at fan meet-and-greets. The director allows the audience to form their own opinions on this behaviour, though there’s little explanation for western audiences who may be unfamiliar with Japanese culture; this is a country where youthfulness and cuteness is celebrated in many different ways, after all, and the film never properly sets out how idol worship sits within that culture, or whether many people in Japanese society have linked it to paedophilia. I’d have liked to have heard less from the middle-aged male otaku and more from the psychologist, whose many concerns about the way young women are depicted in Japanese culture are fascinating but never fully explored by the film. This is an intriguing documentary, but also frustratingly slight. (**½)

To The Bone

A recent made-for-Netflix movie that takes on the subject of anorexia nervosa, written and directed by Marti Nixon, and apparently based on her own struggles with the eating disorder. Far be it from me to comment on the realism of the material here, or how it might be viewed by those with eating disorders, but it has been criticised by others for simplifying the causes of anorexia, and a leading UK charity – Beat – has even urged sufferers to exercise caution before deciding whether or not to watch it. Anyway, Lily Collins stars as Ellen, a 20-year-old woman who is convinced by a leading private doctor (Keanu!) to join his inpatient programme, which involves staying in a kind of convalescent home for an indeterminate amount of time. Several other patients are resident in the house at the same time, including a young and immensely irritating English fop named Luke (Alex Sharp), who becomes Ellen’s love interest. I’m afraid my main problem with this film is this English character, who made me either cringe or recoil in horror every time he appeared on screen; I wonder whether he’s based on a real person, and can only hope – for Marti Nixon’s sake – that he isn’t. Leaving Luke aside, clearly an attempt has been made to make a ‘no holds barred’ film – a ‘graphic content’ warning for viewers pops up at the beginning – but I suspect it may have been softened at some point by Netflix, as I didn’t spot anything particularly harrowing. A disappointment, though certainly not awful. (**)

Dunkirk

In a way Christopher Nolan’s critically-acclaimed and much-loved Dunkirk is the logical conclusion of ‘set piece’-oriented blockbuster filmmaking, because even though he has three stories of varying length playing out concurrently (and edited superbly) in this WWII drama, his 100-minute-long film is effectively one very long, very tense sequence that builds and builds to a particularly thrilling finale. That’s an awful prospect for us to consider, particularly when lesser directors try and pull of something similar, but in this particular case I was gripped throughout and felt for the first time in a long time that I was watching a blockbuster worthy of the name. Anyway, just to be clear, Dunkirk is also much more than just an extended, bravura action sequence; it has Mark Rylance’s kind-faced performance and Tom Hardy’s narrowing eyebrows; the icy Channel and the miserable rain-swept beach; Harry Styles’ unexpectedly effective panic and Hans Zimmer’s wonderful metronomic score. With regard to the latter, among the upbeat nature of the finale (some of which doesn’t quite sit right, such as Kenneth Branagh’s clunky delivery of the line “Hope”), I did really love how the composer incorporated Elgar’s Nimrod. That was beautiful and I was surprised to find myself fighting back the tears and swelling with pride; to imagine at this point a granddad or other relative making their way back – sans musical accompaniment – is bound to affect many people (and I certainly don’t understand why anyone would sneer at or look down on such a reaction in other cinemagoers). This film is a superb technical achievement and an extremely effective way of playing with narrative threads; and one of the finest war films since Saving Private Ryan, if not the finest.