Monthly Archives: October 2009

Soul Food (US 1997)

Mama Jo and her three daughters in the kitchen

Mama Jo and her three daughters in the kitchen

I really enjoyed this film. A touch too schmaltzy perhaps but I’m prepared to forgive writer-director George Tillman Jr when the characters are as well drawn as these and the ensemble playing is so good. This is a genuine family melodrama which would not have shamed Hollywood in its classical melodrama period.

The narrative is female centred with the soul food of the title comprising the key focus for all the extended family’s concerns. In the original family home in Chicago, Mama Jo still presides over her grand Sunday feast. Upstairs her brother never ventures out of his room and his meals are taken up on a tray and left outside his door. The three grown-up daughters all have partners and in one case, children who come over on Sunday, along with the local Minister and, at holiday times, other assorted guests.

The narrative conflict arises from the different attitudes of the daughters. Teri (Vanessa Williams) is the careerist lawyer who has chosen work over family. She doesn’t have children and is in danger of losing her partner, another lawyer who would rather be a musician – but she earns the money that her sisters need to borrow. Maxine (Vivica A. Fox) is the happily married mother of two. Her son, Ahmad, is in the narrator of the story. The third daughter is Bird (Nia Long) and it is she who brings in to the family the potential narrative disruption when she marries Lem (Mekhi Phifer). Lem comes to the family with a criminal record behind him and although he has  turned a new leaf, the past catches up with him. When trouble starts, the different reactions of the family members help to make matters worse. Added to this is a further irritant – the arrival of Cousin Faith, a viper in the bosom as far as the sisters are concerned.

In parallel with this disruption, Mama Jo becomes seriously ill – her diabetes not halted by herbal medicine and, dare we suggest, not helped by her generous portions – and is unable to perform her usual healing effect on family squabbles. As Mama slips away, it is clear that the men cause the problems, but the squabbling sisters make them more difficult to resolve.

The focus on eating together in a family setting is of supreme importance and that’s why it provides the title of the film. We know full well that whatever happens, the family (presumably a metaphor for community) will all still have a chance to solve their problems if they can get back to the table and share some traditional dishes. Ham hocks, pigs feet, chitterlings, biscuits, fried chicken, greens, fishcakes, string beans, salads, black-eye peas and pasta are clearly on the menu. As Mama Jo says, “soul food cooking is cooking from the heart”.

There are many references through food and eating to other African-American movies, not least Daughters of the Dust and To Sleep With Anger. The film was successful and later became a successful TV series running for four seasons, but not coming to the UK as far as I know.

There is a perceptive review of the film here and also an interesting lesbian perspective on the TV Series which revels in the drama between three sisters.

Katalin Varga (Romania/UK/Hungary 2009)

Katalin and Boran in the Carpathians

Katalin and Orbán in the Carpathians

I wish that I’d seen this film when I was more alert and less pre-occupied. I think that I saw something astonishing, but I’m sure I missed some nuances.

The story is very simple, but begins with a flashforward – or possibly it begins ‘now’ and then proceeds as a flashback for half the film’s short (82 mins) running time. Katalin Varga is the mother of a ten year-old boy in Transylvania – the district in the Carpathians that was once part of the Hungarian empire but since 1918 has been part of Romania. Most of the actors in the film are ethnic Hungarians living in Romania. With an English writer-director and Slovaks as well as Romanians and Hungarians, eventually produced by Libra Films from Romania and distributed by a French company Memento, this is a co-operative enterprise – even if some malicious parties have criticised director Peter Strickland for stirring up enmities between Romanians and Hungarians.

When the ‘secret’ behind Katalin’s son’s birth eventually emerges via gossip, her husband throws her out of the house and she takes her son Orbán, telling him that they are going to visit his grandmother. They travel by horse and cart into the mountains and Katalin becomes an ‘avenging angel’ as she seeks out those responsible for her current predicament.

Beautifully shot on 16mm in stunning landscapes, the film is a visual treat. I was reminded at times of the beauty of the Turkish film Times and Winds but the real link is to the fabulous films of Miklós Jancsó, who is himself from Transylvania. I’ve only seen a couple of his famous 1960s films – both in black and white – but the images of flower meadows, valleys, plains and rivers has stayed with me. The visual splendour of the landscapes in Katalin Varga is complemented by an extraordinary soundtrack which mixes Hungarian and Romanian folksongs with avant-garde electronic music by Steven Stapleton and his group Nurse with Wound and Geoff Cox. The effect is quite startling and at times like a horror or science fiction film. I haven’t seen most of Tarkovsky’s later films and I wonder if there is any similarity?

Hilda Péter as Katalin

Hilda Péter as Katalin

The performances are very good, especially Hilda Péter as Katalin. A theatre actor with no previous film experience, she has a striking face – strong and attractive but not conventionally beautiful. I think she is going to be a star. Tibor Pálffy as the man Katalin is seeking also has a remarkable presence.

I guess this can only be described as an art film, but I hope that this doesn’t put people off. Get into the right mood and it will entrance you, though I wouldn’t recommend it as a Friday night date movie. It’s a traditional form – a revenge tale that ultimately leads to the angel consumed by her quest and becoming bad. It takes place in a world that seems to have changed little since medieval times. The occasional interruption by a mobile ‘phone ringtone and a couple of modern teenagers who warn Katalin that she is ‘taking the road to hell’ stand out as modern intrusions into an ancient tale. I recommend the film highly.

Nominated for the Golden Bear, Berlin 2009, Silver Bear Winner for Sound Design.

Cineuropa Film Focus (including interview with the director, Peter Strickland)

Press Pack from Memento (in English).

Similar Press Pack from Artificial Eye.

The Artificial Eye trailer:

Creation (UK 2009)

Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany

Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany

I enjoyed Creation, the new film released to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species, much more than I expected. I was attracted to it by Philip French’s intelligent and knowledgable review in the Observer. But as soon as I began to read other comments on IMDB and other sites, I quickly became distressed by the range of reactions to it.

French suggests that the film is mistitled – promising more, and less, than is actually delivered. On reflection he is probably right. This isn’t a long polemic or a science lecture on a sensational scale. It isn’t ‘epic’ at all (which some viewers seem to expect). French argues that it isn’t like the old Warner Bros. biopics. I bow to his greater recall but it did make me think of some traditional biopics in that it is more of a family melodrama than a scientific narrative. What seems to have angered several viewers is the complex time shifting which leaps backwards and forwards, primarily in relation to the strong relationship between Darwin and his daughter Annie. She died aged 10 and her death troubled Darwin greatly. She reappears in his thoughts and it isn’t clear when she is alive and when she is just a memory.

Yes, I did get confused – but that didn’t bother me. Why should it? The film is scripted by Randall Keynes – a descendant of both Darwin and John Maynard Keynes – and uses his account of Annie’s Box (the memories and artefacts that Darwin associated with her). There are sequences seemingly filmed like a BBC wildlife series to illustrate some of Darwin’s ideas, but mainly the focus is on Darwin’s struggle with illness, exhaustion and a crisis of conscience, worries about Annie and guilt that his wife would suffer, both from his neglect and the possible attack on her Christian values.

The expected criticism of the film is also that it looks like a BBC classic serial. Well, it never looked particularly ‘televisual’ to me. Instead I enjoyed a CinemaScope movie appropriate for a big screen. It seems incredible that half the population of the US, if the figures are to be believed, would find this film offensive because they believe in literal readings of the Bible. I don’t really see how anyone could find offence in the film (or believe that God created the world in seven days) but there you go. Unfortunately, the UK audience has either lost its marbles and thinks it would be offended as well or else it is bored with Darwin celebrations already. Either way, a decent film is failing to attract large audiences and taking less than £1000 per screen on the first week of release. My guess is that its real audience is waiting for a TV screening – a shame I think.