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Posts tagged ‘Family’

Crystal Moselle’s documentary The Wolfpack focuses on the seven teenage siblings of the Angulo family (though it’s primarily about the six brothers and less so the sole sister), who were all home-schooled in New York City and kept apart from the outside world for most of their young lives. Their father Oscar held the only key to the family’s apartment, and for many years he stopped the children and his wife Susanne from coming-and-going as they pleased; one of the brothers wistfully points out during an interview here that in some years the kids didn’t get to go outside at all. It’s understandable, then, that their development has been stunted to a certain degree, and part of the film shows the brothers tentatively getting to grips with the outside world, now that they’re allowed to leave the building. Somewhat disappointingly Moselle’s film doesn’t specifically reveal why the situation has changed, although we do discover that the eldest brother Mukunda disobeyed his father in 2010 and explored the local neighbourhood in a mask before being arrested by police, which seems to have been the catalyst for change.

Yet this is also a film about films, to a certain extent. During their years of confinement the Angulo children developed an enyclopaedic love of cinema, and home movie footage incorporated here suggests that a certain amount of creativity was encouraged within the family’s Lower East Side apartment; we see the kids studying movies such as The Dark Knight, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction et al, before creating their own screenplays, props and costumes, and enacting their own versions of these perennial favourites. The short clips are oddly fascinating, encompassing shootouts in the hall and car chases in the bedroom, with great attention paid to detail; the re-staging of the scene in Pulp Fiction in which Jules and Vincent clear blood and bits of brains from their car shows how seriously the boys were about their joint hobby, and there are some wonderful DIY elements to the productions, such as Mukunda’s Batman costume, which looks the part even though it’s made out of painted cereal boxes and torn-up yoga mats.

Understandably cinema is presented as a means of escape, though in actual fact the films also become indicative of the kids’ captivity, as they’ve all been watched indoors on a TV screen, and it looks like DVDs have been used as a means to keep the boys docile; this only really hits you when you see them going to an actual theatre for the first time, filled with excitement. Unfortunately the documentary doesn’t really offer much in the way of insight beyond this. The filmmaker has been criticised for not pushing the father of the family hard enough during her interviews, and as a result Oscar Angulo isn’t taken to task for his controlling behaviour or the physical abuse endured by Susanne (this is mentioned only briefly), but in Moselle’s defence it’s possible her access would have been revoked had she taken a more obtrusive, aggressive presence. You’re left with a fascinating film that is almost totally reliant on its story, which is fine, but I can see why people experienced a degree of frustration as a result of any passivity. It may be a simplistic way of looking at things, but the documentarian’s first job is to report back on what she has found, and she has done.

Directed by: Crystal Moselle.
Starring: Bhagavan Angulo, Govinda Angulo, Jagadisa Angulo, Krsna Angulo, Mukunda Angulo, Narayana Angulo.
Cinematography: Crystal Moselle.
Editing: Enat Sidi.
Music:
Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans, Aska Matsumiya.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
89.
Year:
2015.

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The Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda has been somewhat prolific during the course of the past twenty years, directing a total of eleven fictional films and documentaries, many of which he also wrote and edited. His reputation as a writer and director who is concerned primarily with traditional, humanist issues has led to inevitable comparisons with the great Yasujiro Ozu, and this 2008 story of a family gathering in memory of a dead son and brother shares many of the same themes contained in Ozu’s Tokyo Story in particular: Kore-eda also explores the disconnect that exists between generations and couples, the tensions that build within crowded, traditional Japanese houses, repression, mistreatment and loss. Still Walking also brings to mind some of Ozu’s techniques as applied to shooting indoors: as the camera slowly moves around the crowded rooms a slight sense of claustrophobia is accentuated by the constant closing of blinds and shoji screens, sealing off areas of the house.

Tokyo Story was a lament for lost values that highlighted changes in post-war Japanese society via the microcosm of two elderly parents visiting their mean-spirited younger children. There is a reversal of that scenario here, with retired doctor Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) and his wife Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) hosting daughter Chinami (pop star and actress You), son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) and their respective families for 24 hours. This annual gathering has taken place for the past 15 years to mark the anniversary of the death of Junpei, Kyohei and Toshiko’s second son, who perished while rescuing a boy in the sea. There’s a sense that the younger characters are now going through the motions with regard to the remembrance, and that it is all taking place for the benefit of Toshiko, the mother who has understandably struggled to move on from the loss.

Despite the similarities with Tokyo StoryStill Walking is no mere pastiche. It functions as a lyrical treatise on the subject of death, a recurring theme in Kore-eda’s work, and subtly examines the notion of time running out for the elderly while also looking at the effects that tragedy has on individuals and families. The deliberate, slow pace allows us to reflect fully on the state that these characters are in, both physical and mental, while also allowing for appreciation of the nuanced dialogue; many words are spoken that are laced with acerbic half-insults and other hidden meanings. This slowness also means we can assess, to a reasonably satisfying extent, the way that the relationships between the characters have changed in the years since Junpei’s death, and whether the tragedy has caused certain inter-personal developments or whether they probably would have occurred anyway.

While eldest son Ryota is not exactly estranged from his family, he sees the visits home as a chore, partly because he has a troubled relationship with his father. Ryota is out of work but has not told Kyohei, and he fervently checks his phone for news of employment. Kyohei coldly grumbles his way around the house post-retirement, bitter that he has not been succeeded in his medical practice by his surviving son, and certain in his mind that Junpei would have done so had he lived. A tall man, Ryota has a permanent, awkward-looking stoop while indoors, the cramped space forcing him to bend over as he moves from room to room, and increasing the sense that he is ill at ease in this house. He is recently married to a widow named Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), who also finds the visit trying because of provocative comments made by Toshiko; Yukari’s son Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka) is also still mourning the loss of his biological father. Chinami seemingly has a better relationship with her parents and is keen for them to move in with her, but her mother secretly complains that Chinami’s husband Nobuo (Kazuya Takahashi) is full of empty promises, and that Chinami and Nobuo’s children are too loud and energetic for her liking.

In one sense very little actually happens during this 24 hour period. Meals are prepared and eaten, walks to the cemetery and the shoreline are taken and the family is visited by a sushi restaurant owner as well as the man who was saved by Junpei as a boy (now an awkward, clumsy adult whose life every year is the subject of a semi-tortuous, judgment-laden analysis by the elderly couple, who seem intent on satisfying their belief that the ‘wrong’ person died in the accident). Yet there is much detail in the innocuous moments that make up the majority of the film: Ryota’s tactile examination of broken bathroom tiles and a new safety handrail indicates the decline of his parents in both a subtle and an obvious way, the pleasantries Kyohei exchanges with an ill, elderly neighbor brings to mind the inevitability of death as well as public masks that hide one’s true character, and even the playing of a record is a design that reveals Toshiko’s long-standing sadness at her lot, caused many years previously by Kyohei’s infidelity.

The family history is unveiled slowly through conversations that often take place between two characters. The action – if you can call it that – moves from one room to another, the sliding doors always cutting off the space and isolating those in dialogue from the rest of the family. It’s very cramped, particularly while Chinami and her husband and kids are also in the house, and Kore-eda is only able to pull back and show more when the camera is trained on the exterior of the house from the garden, or when family members go for their slow walks. Eventually, as in Michael Haneke’s Amour, the hallway, rooms and tatami mats all become as familiar to the viewer as the characters themselves.

The spectre of death looms over Still Walking. In one beautiful scene a butterfly enters the room from outside and eventually lands upon a picture of Junpei, which leads Toshiko to believe it is the spirit of her son. Soon afterwards we see Atsushi outside, talking to his dead father. Kyohei is seen helplessly watching on during a medical emergency, shoved aside by a younger ambulance crew when a neighbour’s heart condition suddenly deteriorates, a telling act of inter-generational dismissal. If there was any doubt about the film’s primary concern, a downbeat coda adds a full stop, so to speak. It is a poignant ending given earlier conversations in which Kyohei and Ryota made vague plans on attending a football match together, and Chinami and Toshiko chat about future plans to co-habit. Kore-eda’s film is a beautiful examination of death and loss, of life in flux, and also the long-standing resentments that can gnaw away at the stability of familial relationships. Rather than merely imitating Ozu, he cleverly shows that certain issues in Japanese family life are as relevant today as they were during that revered director’s heyday, and his quiet film – which ignores the explosions of rage or revelations we are used to in the equivalent type of film in western cinema – is a fascinating, poetic work.

The Basics:
Directed by: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Written by: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Starring: Hiroshi Abe, Yoshio Harada, Kirin Kiki, You, Yui Natsukawa, Kazuya Takahashi, Shohei Tanaka
Certificate: U
Running Time: 114 minutes
Year: 2008
Rating: 8.5

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Sarah Polley’s touching, illuminating and genre-twisting documentary Stories We Tell is an examination of her own family’s history, detailing the love affairs and marriages of her mother Diane via interviews with relatives and others that knew her well. It’s also something of a statement of appreciation and love for her family, which highlights the bonds that exist between parents and their children, and siblings. However, it’s anything but straightforward: Polley cleverly turns the age-old formula of modern day talking head testaments coupled with archive Super-8 home video footage into a film that questions the accuracy and the reliability of storytelling and memories, and creates a thought-provoking piece that was inexplicably overlooked by the Academy when the Shiny Gongs were handed out earlier this year.

Polley is a Canadian actress and director best known for her roles in Doug Liman’s Go and Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead remake, as well as making her own films Away From Her and Take This Waltz, and this is her first attempt at making a documentary. It begins intriguingly, with one of Polley’s sisters candidly asking why anybody would be interested in watching a film about their family, before the life of their extroverted mother is discussed extensively by her English second husband Michael, her children (some of whom are from her first marriage, which is discussed less), her lover Harry Gulkin and several other friends and relatives. It is revealed that Diane, who died of cancer aged 55 when Sarah was 11 years old, was an actress who – it seems – lived life to the full, bringing an innate sense of joie de vivre into every room she entered. Her effervescence made her extremely popular with her peers, and her children fondly remember their own times with her. Michael, on the other hand, is a classic introvert, a man who is happiest when sitting in silence and who appears to prefer the company of the flies that enter his apartment than that of many human beings; even though that makes him sound like an eccentric oddball, he comes across as a perceptive and thoughtful person with his marbles all present and correct.

A while back Michael was inspired to write about the story of his marriage to Diane, and as such he acts as a kind of narrator here, reading on camera his own words that detail his own life with Diane and their children. While some elements of Diane and Michael’s marriage and family life appear to have gone very well, Michael’s story and the interviews also reveal that the amount of passion in their relationship lessened over time. When Diane met film and theatre producer Harry while performing in Montreal she fell in love once again and entered into an extra-marital affair; the effect that this has had on the family and Harry is explored in depth here, with a surprising twist in the tale. Yet as the interview and archive footage stacks up and we automatically begin to form our own opinions, the director cleverly subverts this type of documentary filmmaking by directly questioning the reliability of the storytellers, even pulling back the curtains on her own methods as a filmmaker in order to make her point. Without wishing to give too much away, this is executed superbly, foreshadowed early on when the camera slowly pans around Michael’s kitchen to reveal a mess that had been kept off screen up until that point; the message that you can’t trust what the camera shows you is made both subtly and – later – more directly, and it’s clear that the viewer should always be aware that there is much more going on outside of the rectangle than we see on screen. Equally, there is information we will never get to hear and thoughts that will never be shared.

I hasten to add that it’s not as if the statements by friends and family members interviewed are in direct opposition to each other, and no-one is revealed to be a liar, but certain things are remembered in slightly different ways by different people, and even long-held assumptions are revealed as being untrue. The contradictions are often surprising, and sometimes predictable, and the one voice that would be able to shed the most light on the story at the centre of Stories We Tell (or at least to confirm what is and isn’t accurate) is, of course, missing. Diane’s death at a young age lends the documentary an air of sadness and the fact we never hear her voice means that consideration of what is absent here, of one person’s account that is not being told, is always on the viewer’s mind.

The testimonies are often funny and often poignantly sad, and as such the documentary covers a wide range of emotions. Some are more nervous than others in front of the camera, but the fact that they are talking to someone they know extremely well soon settles the interviewees, and there’s a degree of openness here that a stranger would never be able to elicit. This candidness, as well as Sarah Polley’s clear skill as an editor and documentary filmmaker, is the answer to the question of why anyone would find a documentary about this family interesting. Free of warts-and-all sensationalism, this is a wonderful, thought-provoking film that explores memory, perception and family bonds in a smart, fascinating and honest way.

The Basics:
Directed by: Sarah Polley
Written by: Sarah Polley
Starring: Michael Polley, Sarah Polley, Harry Gulkin
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 106 minutes
Year: 2013
Rating: 8.1

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