Tuesday, February 26, 2013

In the Fog - Sergei Loznitsa

In the Fog (V tumane) (Sergei Loznitsa — Germany/Netherlands/Belarus/Russia/Latvia) 127 minutes

The predicament of Belarusians living through the Nazi Occupation during the Second World War — caught as they were between the barbarism of the Germans and the potentially deadly repurcussions that might be visited on them by Stalin if they were seen to be too compliant — was fertile ground for Soviet-era cinema. Husband and wife Elem Klimov and Larissa Shepitko provided notable examples, Shepitko with her 1976 Golden Bear-winning The Ascent and then Klimov nine years later with Come and See. Sergei Loznitsa’s second fiction film after the excellent, harrowing My Joy follows in this tradition but its historical connotations are somewhat broader.

To a Western European audience, In the Fog will just appear another gloomy eastern art movie — albeit a recognisably impressive one — but Lozitsna’s choice of source material tackled by Loznitsa is a ballsy one. The film is based on Vasil’ Bykaw’s novel of the same name. Bykaw, himself a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, is a big deal in former Soviet countries and he is arguably the most important figure in the literature of 20th-century Belarus. He is, if one may put it glibly, Solzhenitsyn, Günther Grass and Camus rolled into one. Bykaw had numerous brushes with Soviet officialdom but managed to maintain an independence of sort and was always a hugely popular writer before the break-up of the USSR. In the Fog was published in 1989, just as the Iron Curtain was coming down, presaging the split further east two years later. The novel, about the impossible situation a man falsely accused of collaboration finds himself in, may also be read as an allegory for more contemporary dilemmas. Bykaw would maintain his dissidence in Belarus up until his death in 2003 as the newly independent republic descended back into dictatorship under Aleksandr Lukashenka.

Loznitsa’s lucid and tough-hearted film adaptation offers similar scope to the attentive viewer. The hero of the film is Sushenya (Vladimir Svirksiy), a railway line-man in his 30s, who refuses to take part with three colleagues in what is a practically suicidal derailment of a Nazi train. When all four are arrested, Sushenya is offered to be spared by the local Gestapo Commandant if he turns informer; when he refuses the officer spares him anyway, only to leave him under the perpetual cloud of suspicion for having betrayed his comrades. One night two pro-Soviet partisans, Burov and Voitik, knock on his door and take him away to execute him. But there are more twists to the stories awaiting in the dark Belarusian forests.

In the Fog is deceptively titled, for all the mist that is evident on screen; it is a clean, uncluttered drama, recounting the back stories of all three characters, two of whom have been pushed to make conscious choices to decide their fate, the third caught up in an absurd web of destiny beyond his control. Loznitsa does remarkably well to bring the novel’s interrogation of moral quandaries to life. It is a living, organic film of speech and actions rather than contrived ideas. It also looks great, with Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu (who has worked with Christian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu as well as with Loznitsa on My Joy) capturing the drab autumnal tones in splendidly-mounted Scope, alternating stately set-ups with Loznitsa’s more trademark handheld, shoulder-hugging travelling shots. To successfully adapt a major writer such as Bykaw is an achievement in itself; to turn the material into such a fine film is something remarkable indeed.

Monday, February 25, 2013

La Bande des Jotas - Marjane Satrapi

La Bande des Jotas (Marjane Satrapi - France/Belgium) 74 minutes

Filmmakers of straitened means have long been attracted to the south of Spain. As well as the raft of spaghetti westerns shot in Almeria, there is Fassbinder’s Whity and Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell. Marjane Satrapi is not exactly incapable of mustering together a budget but after the relative flop of her second feature Poulet aux prunes, she decamped to Valencia to film on a shoestring this oddity that is as enjoyable as it is undeniably disposable.

La Bande des Jotas is Satrapi’s third film and her first not to be adapted from one of her own comic books and also the first without co-director Vincent Paronnaud. She takes the lead role herself, a woman seemingly in distress but endowed with plenty of cash (a wry nod, no doubt, to the film’s frugal production). Upon arriving at her hotel she discovers she has mistakenly reclaimed the wrong suitcase from the airport. It belongs to a pair of badminton players, Nils and Didier (Mathias Ripa – Satrapi’s real-life husband - and Stéphane Roche) who are travelling around Spain playing in tournaments. Having got her suitcase back, our heroine takes the pair out to dinner in thanks but then spies a mysterious hood who she claims has murdered her sister and is now trying to track her down.

Nils and Didier then become embroiled in her problems when they accidentally kill the man, who is one of five brothers – Juan, José, Jorge, Joaquin and Julio – the titular bande des jotas. The pair join Satrapi on her peregrinations across the Spanish Riviera, now, in their turn, tracking down the gang.

The film is low-budget but fairly handsomely put together nonetheless (Satrapi and Roche collaborated on the photography and editing) and the director herself is a surprisingly engaging comic presence, a Persian female Woody Allen, if you will. La bande des Jotas is quite clearly a film that was made up as it went along; the action occasionally frays but it provides enough laughs for an improvised comedy. It was presumably intended as a placeholder, or an interim exercise until her next film and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It clocks in at 74 minutes and the use of Impact – the typeface of one million internet memes – in the title sequence sums up the jokiness quite well. It is also more enjoyable than Jim Jarmusch's woefully serious The Limits of Control. We might be better served by a new comic book from Marjane Satrapi (her last, Poulet aux prunes dates back to 2004) but we can be grateful for such an inoffensive curio as this for the time being.

Two Asian Films

The Taste of Money (Donui Mat) (Im Song-soo, South Korea) 115 minutes

You get the sense that Im Song-soo, in his seventh feature, knows exactly what he is doing, even if it might leave many who watch it flummoxed. Im bemoaned the critical panning The Taste of Money received at Cannes last year by suggesting foreigners could not understand the intricacies of its satire on Korean business and privilege. That may be so but he is pulling his work further into the realm of highly-polished shlock, after his quixotic 2010 remake of Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid. (That reworking of the film considered South Korean cinema’s landmark work was comparable to, say, David O. Russell having a crack at a new Citizen Kane.)  

The Taste of Money continues, in a loose way, the story of The Housemaid, with the children from the family grown up (this is referred to in one scene and Im himself has confirmed this). The central character is Joo, the young private secretary to Yoon, head of the powerful Baek business family. He organises hookers for visiting businessmen and accompanies Yoon on money-laundering missions, on which his boss openly encourages him to grab wads of cash for himself - ‘everyone else does’. The Baek household is a den of iniquity of Caligulan proportions. Yoon is bedding the Filipina maid, his wife Geum-ok (played by the brilliant Yeon Yeo-jeong - a regular for Im Song-soo as she was for Kim Ki-young before him) seduces the much younger Joo, later admitting it was ‘practically rape’. Meanwhile their divorced daughter, Nami, is herself preying on the secretary. Her brother, Chul, is in and out of prison, carrying the can for the family’s transgressions of the law.

What the film lacks in narrative sophistication, it makes up for in its visual palette. It is a rich, if at times sickly, confection, with a superbly designed set captured in an array of masterly deep focus shots and Dutch Angles. Im is a deft stylist and at his best can produce some irresistible cinema, such as in The President’s Last Bang, which dramatised the 1979 assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee (father of current president-elect Park Geun-hye) quite audaciously, as a black comedy. It had all the verve of early Scorsese and de Palma combined. But where that film was focused and, its socio-historical resonance, even for a non-Korean, quite easy to decipher, The Taste of Money is an heaving opaque mass that yields little to the uninitiated. It is strange that Im Song-soo’s invocations of Korean history (also seen in his 2006 adaptation of Hwang Sok-yong’s novel The Old Garden) travel better than his forays into broader satire. Like ‘Gangnam Style’, there is enough in The Taste of Money to amuse an international audience but to get anything out of it, you sense that knowing a bit more about Korean society would help.


Mundane History (Jao nok krajok) (Anocha Suwichakornpong - Thailand) 82 minutes

There is much in Mundane History, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s debut feature that reminds you of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. The Thai director’s film came first though, winning the Tiger award at the 2009 Rotterdam Film Festival and, shockingly, failing to get a European release until now. The mundane history of the title tells of the relationship of a bourgeois student from Bangkok, being cared for at his parents’ home by his male nurse from the provinces, after being seriously injured in a car accident.

 The film’s central story is filmed with great sensitivity, the camera lingering on its elegantly framed subjects as if to embalm them in their own loneliness and frustration. But it knows its limits (the title is itself an admission of this) and the story is not going anywhere your common-or-garden buddy movie hasn’t gone before, or, indeed, the more recent French convalescent/minder two-hander Intouchables. So Anocha opts to recast her narrative through some simple formal inventiveness. Aided by Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular film editor Lee Chatametikool, she shuffles the scenes disconcertingly, having Pun, the nurse, chat familiarly, to the staff of the house, before later being introduced to them. Somjai, the young cripple, also regains the use of his legs at one point but we cannot tell if it is a scene from the future or a flashback to before the accident. The ploy could have been confusing but instead it summons intrigue, interrogating the viewer about what it is they expect from such a, well, mundane narrative.

If a recourse to non-linearity gives Anocha some wriggle-room with her very ordinary subject matter, she doubles the formal breaches with scenes that look like a very lo-fi version of the cosmic sequences in Malick’s later, overblown, Palme d’Or winner. While Malick overreaches grossly with a biological history that is far more mundane that the domestic drama at the heart of his film, Anocha is more cautious, and more coy. Her abstract scenes are explained by their being filmed on a trip by Pun and Somjai to a planetarium, even though she does allow herself more formal flourishes in the film’s closing moments. These, depending on your point of view, appear either tacked on or a shrewd underpinning of the workaday tale we have just witnessed. One thing you can say though is that, Mundane History, while being a relatively conventional arthouse film, is experimental in the truest sense of the word in that its director takes risks with her narrative. If it works, well and good; if it doesn’t, the rest of the film is sufficiently strong not to suffer by the experimentation. And Mundane History is, in many ways, a fine film, by a director who surely has many more ahead of her.

Monday, February 11, 2013


Blancanieves (Pablo Berger - Spain/France) 90 minutes

The craze for silent cinema continues. Following the Oscar-winning The Artist and Miguel Gomes’s half-silent Tabu, the latest offering is from Spain, by director Pablo Berger. Blancanieves, an adaptation of Snow White, is closer to the The Artist in appearance but its sensibility is more similar to Gomes’s. It is not simply a fine silent film that is largely free of gimmicks (unlike Michel Hazanavicius’s Oscar winner) but a first-rate, at times ingenious, literary adaptation.

 The action begins in the bullrings of Seville in the early 20th century, with maestro toreador António Villalta at his peak, only to be horrendously gored by the bull when he is momentarily blinded by a photographer’s flash. His pregnant wife witnesses it and goes into labour from the distress. The two are taken to hospital, where Villalta’s life is saved but the wife dies during childbirth. Villalta then marries his scheming nurse Encarna (a brilliantly icy Maribel Verdú, from Y Tu Mama También and Pan’s Labyrinth) and the young daughter, Carmencita, is packed off to live with her maternal grandmother.

After the grandmother’s death, the child goes to live with Encarna, where she is barred from seeing her father, wheelchair-bound and kept captive in his upstairs bedroom, but finds a way nonetheless. All this time she is subjected to the familiar cruelty and life of drudgery in the house’s lower quarters. After finally escaping the house, she meets up with a travelling circus troupe - seven dwarves, naturally. She is unable to remember her name so they baptise her Blancanieves ("like in the fairy tale", a wryly self-reflexive take on the source material). She finds she has inherited her father’s talent in the corrida and becomes a sensation in Andalusia, knocking Encarna off the front pages of the society magazines, provoking her stepmother’s ire.

What makes Blancanieves particularly fresh is it doesn’t slavishly follow all the available tropes of silent cinema; though it is clearly a homage to European films of the silent era, it lets its story breathe and mines other arts and later cinema too for its references. Kiko de la Rica’s hight-contrast black-and-white photography is a delight and both he and Berger excel at capturing the very photogenic charms of Seville. It is a slice of sun-drenched Latin Gothic that stands as an innovative film in its own right while also giving new life to an old fairytale (while simultaneously drawing elements from one or two others). Blancanieves’s success at the box-office in Spain, where it has been hailed as the best film of 2012 by none other than Pedro Almódovar, suggests that silent cinema may have an audience that will sustain it beyond being a simple fad. With the availability of silent films online now, it may well be that more people are receptive to films without sound than there have been since the advent of the talkies. That may or may not be the case but Blancanieves is likely to be a film that will last (certainly more so than The Artist).

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Lincoln (Steven Spielberg - USA)  150 minutes

Ten or fifteen years ago, a Lincoln biopic (if this film, can, indeed, be so considered) in Steven Spielberg’s hands would have been a different thing entirely. The historical achievement Lincoln is most readily associated with — the abolition of slavery, more formally known as the 13th amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America — is ripe for complaisant scenarios, and complaisant scenarios — let’s be honest here — are Spielberg’s stock in trade. One need only look at the slave-revolt-courtroom-drama Amistad (1997) to see how Spielberg is so ready, like a contemporary Candide, to mine every historical event for its best possible outcome, one generally facilitated by the now notorious white-saviour complex.

Things started looking up with Spielberg’s 2005 Munich, which was a surprisingly nuanced dramatisation of Mossad’s reaction to the Munich massacres. The screenwriter was Tony Kushner, and it is he who provides the backbone to what is Spielberg’s finest film since Schindler’s List and possibly his best ever.

Lincoln announces itself as a film about the 16th president of the United States, and emphasises that primordiality by its casting of Daniel Day Lewis, a man who makes himself available for work with exceptional parsimony these days, in the lead role. Day Lewis as Lincoln is the perfect fit; as well as looking reasonably like him, he manages to incarnate the president’s goofish affability and looming political weight while never making the film about just him. He is, obviously, the subject of the film but Spielberg and Kushner are content to let him sink into the background, as indeed he did during the  lobbying for votes for the amendment in early 1865.

Kushner’s screenplay, adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln biography Team of Rivals, rightly focuses on the radical abolitionist faction of Congress, led by Thaddeus Stevens (a superb Tommy Lee Jones), whose scepticism as to Lincoln’s amendment is slowly eroded in the face of circumstances and, more crucially, hope. It is this anchoring of the political dialogue that allows Spielberg to reach beyond the passing of the bill and accord it its rightful seismic historical importance without treating it as an ineffable historical end-point. Stevens is the anchor in Congress, a bruiser in debates with pro-slavers, most notably, Fernando Wood (played by Lee Pace), but also someone who knows when to cut a deal, however compromising that might be, when the moment is right.

What we see in Lincoln is the sausage of laws being made, as the shortfall of the necessary 20 votes is made up by the government using all sorts of incentives and threats. All of this is handled by the president’s fixers  — a wonderful Falstaffian troupe led by James Spader, who provide some of the film’s more humorous moments. They also imbue the film with much of its period texture — and I don’t think I have relished the detail of a period film so much since Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy. Some critics have suggested the film is an analogy for Obama’s presidency; it’s not an idea without merit, especially given Day Lewis’s tendency to drift in and out of congressional proceedings like the current president. Another description of the film that has floated about online - a "political procedural",  sums it up rather better though. This is testimony to Kushner’s sensibility for dialectic and also a sneaking suspicion that, in the story of every great man of history, the most interesting thing lies elsewhere (if not too far away).

Lincoln is a long and sumptuous film, though I can’t say I found it over-long, and, believe me, I complain about the length of films often enough. It marries Spielberg’s considerable technical and narrative talents with a screenwriter who has a nose for how stories can be told intelligently in mainstream cinema - notably, without any pretension. And Kushner gives the film a vital edge too that saves it from being yet another worthy slice of Hollywood hagiography. His screenplay, along with Janusz Kaminski’s rich, wintry photography, steers a recognisably Spielbergian film towards something exceptional.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

The Student

The Student/El Estudiante (Santiago Mitre - Argentina) 110 minutes

On more than one occasion in Santiago Mitre’s second feature I asked myself: ‘why am I watching this?’ The tale of an Argentine student of pliable political sensibilities and his rise in student and university politics, it has little in its subject matter that ought to be of interest to anyone outside of a small sector of Argentine society. The Student, is, however, a surprisingly watchable and well-constructed tale of political intrigue. And if Danish politics is a subject worthy of internationally successful drama these days, why not Argentine university administration elections?

The titular student is Roque (played by Esteban Lamothe), a provincial starting college in Buenos Aires for the second time, who quickly loses interest in his studies to become involved in institutional politics, mainly to try and get off with Paula (Romina Paula), an attractive junior lecturer. Roque’s political skills, though they are not terribly obvious from anything the film shows us, gain the interest of  Alberto Acevedo (Ricardo Felix), a one-time ministerial attaché, who is mounting a push for the rectorate of Roque’s university. Roque is from a Perónist family, something that will be of only passing interest for many viewers but is clearly crucial for a full understanding of the film’s politics. Acevedo, on the other hand, is affiliated with a non-defined centre-left grouping that seems to be prepared to jump into bed with anyone to get into power.

I was drawn to The Student mainly by the presence of Pablo Trapero on the credits. Trapero has directed a string of excellent character-driven crime dramas in recent years and Mitre - who scripted Trapero’s last film but one, Carancho - has the older director’s verve and his keen sensibility for the nocturnal wild of Buenos Aires. Knowing that Mitre shot much of his film on the hoof, without official permission, makes it all the more impressive. As I said before, you are likely to heave loudly at some of minutiae of the parochial drama being played out on screen, but it is expertly handled, and paced like a slick thriller. When he takes up less recondite material, Mitre stands to be a director worth watching. The Student is a strange beast of a film but worth watching despite its unpromising subject matter.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Comme un lion/ Main dans la main

Comme un lion (Samuel Collardey - France) 102 minutes

Who, among those of us who love both cinema and football, don’t get the slightest of thrills at the prospect of a combination of the two? Never mind that most films about football tend to be awful; just the idea of the game on the big screen is enough to get the heart racing. Comme un lion, the second feature by French director Samuel Collardey starts off from a promising, topical premise: young African players taken advantage of by unscrupulous agents and then abandoned in Europe when no club shows any interest in them.

Mitri (played by Mitri Attal) is a Senegalese teenager raised by his mother, who is one day selected by a visiting Cameroonian agent to go to France to have trials with big clubs. The hitch is a large amount of money must first be paid up front to cover flights, visas and accommodation. Mitri’s grandmother, who raised him, is promised all manner of riches as a return on the payment, so she reluctantly sells her orchard (and livelihood) and takes a hefty loan from the community sweepstake to make up the shortfall.

Things start going wrong though as soon as Mitri and a handful of other Senegalese hopefuls touch down at Charles de Gaulle. Their visas don’t seem to be in order and though they are soon sorted out, two days later Mitri is brought for a trial at a stadium near Paris (eagle-eyed fans of French football will recognise it as Red Star 93’s Stade Bauer) and promptly abandoned. After a couple of nights sleeping rough, a sympathetic Senegalese woman sets him up with social services, who send him to Montbéliard, in the east of France, home of Peugeot and Sochaux Football Club.

Mitri wrangles his way into a youth side managed by a gruff ex-pro, played by Marc Barbé, and makes it his goal to land a contract with Sochaux. This is where the film gets a great deal more predictable and formulaic. It has the promise to be a probing social drama but Mitri’s problems are resolved remarkably neatly - many of the real African players who have been left stranded in Europe would laugh bitterly at the ease at which he finds help from the State. Marc Barbé, who is one of France’s finest character actors, is wasted in what is essentially a clichéd surrogate-father role. Though based on a true story, the film seems like a real missed opportunity to examine a shameful contemporary phenomenon. It is also a bit irritating to hear Fela Kuti played over the opening credit sequence set in Senegal; Fela is great and all but Senegal, a country 1200 miles from Nigeria, is not exactly a land without music.

Main dans la main - (Valérie Donzelli - France) 90 minutes

Valérie Donzelli and her ex-partner Jérémie Elkaïm team up once again as actor and screenwriter for her third film as director. Her second Declaration of War/La guerre est declarée was one of the surprise hits at the French box-office in 2011. It was based on the real-life illness of their own infant son and was an impressive slice of bracing emotional popular cinema. Main dans la main uses many of the same tropes as the previous film: song-and-dance routines (the film takes its title from a 1980 hit by Elli et Jacno), voice-over and a free-wheeling, risk-taking approach to narrative. Unfortunately, what worked so well for Declaration of War here looks flat and contrived.

The film recounts the unlikely love affair between a young provincial glazier Joachim (Elkaïm) and Hélène, the uptight middle-aged director of the Paris Opera, played by Valérie Lemercier. They are initially bound together by some inexplicable force, which is a lot more annoying than charming, as the filmmakers no doubt expected it to be. Joachim’s sister, played by Donzelli, has reality-TV dancing ambitions of her own, but these are stymied by a freak injury to her dancing partner. She then chooses to live vicariously through her brother, who is now at one remove from the glamour of ballet. It’s a plot device indicative of the film as a whole: it feels forced, arbitrarily imposed on the screenplay. Likewise, the illness that afflicts Hélène’s live-in friend. We take a lot on faith in the film but little of it is convincing. The problem lies, I think, in trying to marry an over-stylised visual aesthetic with a narrative held together by a voice-over; it was a trick tried often by the New Wave, but it runs the risk of appearing contrived. Too often, it looks as if Donzelli is making it up as she goes along.

Main dans la main is not a particularly good film but it is admirable in the way it takes a chance on an unorthodox format for a romantic comedy. Donzelli also appreciates the virtues of both music and dance and visual story-telling. If she manages to make her characters more credible and less pegs of convenience for her narrative needs, she will return to form soon.

4:44 Last Day on Earth/ Gone Fishing/ Jack Reacher

4:44 Last Day on Earth (Abel Ferrara - France/USA) 88 mins

I have to admit to being a bit of an Abel Ferrara-agnostic. I can accept the majesty of some of his films — The Bad Lieutenant in particular — but too often his work seems like a overly-theoretical mulch, which is strange given he started off a filmmaker of such rude energy. His lack of self-discipline has, over the years, critically impeded his filmmaking, and his much-lauded interrogation of Catholic guilt usually leaves me bored (though that might have much to do with me being a non-believer who finds Catholicism fascinating but Catholic guilt as elusive a chimera as a Yeti or those forty different Eskimo words for snow.)

Ferrara is now a Buddhist, under the influence of his new wife Shanyn Leigh, who here plays the female lead, a painter, Skye, who is spending with her actor partner, Willem Dafoe, the last day before the apocalypse hits. There is not a complete break with the Catholicism of old but there is a lot of Buddhism on display, in the form of televised interviews with the Dalai Lama and lectures by Geshe Michael Roach, which Skye listens to as she quixotically paints what will be her ultimate work. There is also Charlie Rose interviewing Al Gore (now vindicated by the impending doom), and some awful twaddle from Joseph Campbell.

The upside is the overriding sense you get from Ferrara’s intertextual collage is one of theological uncertainty, with the only constants being the resolve of the film’s various recovering addicts not to succumb again to drug use before the end. Not unlike Don McKellar’s Last Night, Ferrara’s film is surprisingly grounded in earthly concerns. There are also fine moments of touching drama, such as where a Vietnamese delivery boy skypes his family on Dafoe’s computer to say goodbye. 4:44 is not the masterpiece French critics have claimed it is but it is a welcome exercise in modesty and a streamlining of Abel Ferrara’s often cacophonous argumentation.

Gone Fishing (Días de pesca) (Carlos Sorín - Argentina) 78 mins

The latest of Sorín’s miniaturist dramas and yet another that takes as its hero an ordinary male Argentine cast adrift in the world. Marco, a middle-aged travelling salesman has decamped to the wilds of Patagonia to do some shark-fishing, despite having barely wielded a rod in his life. We learn early on he is a recovering alcoholic and the trip has been recommended as an activity to keep him away from temptations. The film follows him through one humdrum encounter after another in Puerto Deseado, as he meets a garrulous boxing coach, a trio of pot-smoking Colombian backpackers and a fishing instructor who finds he has a real tyro on his hands.

Marco is also on the look-out for his daughter, with whom he has lost touch several years earlier and who had moved to the region. This appears to be another stage on his quest for self-affirmation and the scenes where he tries to buy a toy for his infant grandson have a comic echo of the travelling salesman’s purchase of a birthday cake in Sorín’s 2001 film Historías Minimas. But there is an uncomfortable ambiguity about Marco. He is a gentle, shy character, in keeping with Sorín’s usual protagonists but you get the sense he has scarred those he has known in his past. Alejandro Awada’s performance is natural and self-effacing to the point of poignancy yet, even without recourse to much information about what has gone before, he imparts the slightest sense of childish insecurity, just enough to make you doubt.

Gone Fishing is, for all its apparent gentleness, probably Sorín’s darkest film to date. He is an able director at filming professional and non-professional actors together and he has equal sympathy for the Patagonian landscape and the lives of ordinary people. Probably the only serious flaw is the syrupy music that occasionally threatens to drag the film down to afternoon-TV level, but the goodness of the film shines through. Sorín’s films are occasionally great but one thing they always are is good. Indelibly good.

Jack Reacher (Christopher McQuarrie - USA) 131 mins

Jack Reacher starts off promisingly enough, with an extended sequence of an assassin positioning himself on the edge of the Allegheny river in Pittsburgh and taking aim, seemingly randomly, at a group of pedestrians on the waterfront opposite. It reminds me you of The Conversation and The Parallax View and other 70s paranoia thrillers. These days the best most Hollywood films can aim for is a pastiche of films from that paradise lost of American cinema. Unfortunately for Jack Reacher, it doesn’t even get that far in the end.

That’s not to say it’s a film totally without merit; it’s just that much of the good in it is over-egged — McQuarrie’s fastidiously honed dialogue, the brief lurch into faint subversiveness with its Iraq war back-story…and Tom Cruise. The diminutive Dianetician, as producer, and main-man, playing a mercurial former US military policeman, indulges himself no end, being at turns sexy, mysterious, menacing, canny, and, most of all, indestructible. It is an act of all-in megalomania without parallel in contemporary cinema — we see all facets of Tom’s repertoire, from all angles. Jack Reacher is unconfined by the dull constraints of narrative perspective, he is actorly Cubism personified.

Unfortunately he is upstaged most cruelly by Werner Herzog, who hams it up splendidly in a preposterously Old World way, with his improbable non-Russian accent, his world-weary clownish psychopathy and his irreducible Herzogness. It’s no real contest in the end and you wonder was it an intentional act of masochism on Cruise’s part to cast Herzog opposite him. Other than that, the film rapidly descends into a mess, albeit a mildly entertaining one. The initial intrigue is predictably supplanted by a wider conspiracy that is a lot less interesting than it thinks it is and one’s heartfelt sympathy goes out to Rosamund Pike, who starts off as a hot-shot lawyer and ends up an old-fashioned damsel in distress. A diverting film but not one that will loom too large in even the Cruise canon; and there will be more, the man has bought the rights to the whole series of Lee Child novels.

Django Unchained

Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino - USA) 165 minutes

Quentin Tarantino is a director I often think I dislike and then find when actually watching his films that I’m quite fond of him. I wrote him off as out of ideas after all he could produce in the six years following Jackie Brown was the fiasco that was Kill Bill. Tarantino, mercifully, released that in two parts, the first decent enough, the second not so much, because we might otherwise have been left with the longest bad film in history. Then he returned with the charming and funny Deathproof, which showed his co-optation and rejigging of trashy midnight movies still had some life in it. With Inglourious Basterds, a much more thoughtful film that even its many fans think, it got even better.

So what of Django Unchained? As ever, with Tarantino, we are viewing everything through the prism of film history and here the refractions are provided by Spaghetti westerns - a nod to Sergio Corbucci’s 1965 film in the title and its star Franco Nero features in a cameo - and various 70s exploitation films, the notorious Mandingo in particular. If you understand the references, you might feel less queasy at the fetishised portrayal of slavery, but even then it runs close to the bone at times. The year is 1858 and Christophe Waltz is splendid as the German bounty hunter who buys the freedom of the titular slave (Jamie Foxx) to hunt down his quarry. In return, Django gets him to assist him in freeing his wife Broomhilde von Shaft (yes, the Nibelung and Gordon Parks Jr rolled into one), who is in the custody of the vicious slaver Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo di Caprio). Di Caprio is an actor, who I can often never tell whether he is giving a great or wretched performance — here that ambiguity pays off nicely.

The film has ample great setpieces and is directed for the most part with wit and brio; Tarantino, whatever you might say about him, is devoid of the pretentiousness that riddles so much Oscar fodder these days. The main problem though is the scale and the length — there is no justification whatsoever for having it the length it is. An hour could easily have been shorn off without losing anything. In fact, the bloated scale of what is in essence a tarted-up exploitation film (nothing wrong with that) at times robs it of much of its punch. Few of the no-budget maestros Tarantino reveres and references would ever have turned their noses up at a bit funding to work with but I doubt they would have been quite so gourmand as Tarantino often is. The longer length worked well with the marvellous Jackie Brown, but that was a film with at a duo (probably quartet) of fantastically observed characters; Django, by contrast doesn’t have that ballast. It’s enjoyable stuff and contains much of what is good in Tarantino’s cinema but I hope he starts paring things down for his next film.

Monday, February 04, 2013


Renoir (Gilles Bourdos - France) 111 minutes

Gilles Bourdos’s Renoir is not a biopic in any real sense of the word but rather a recounting of the summer of 1915 when the young Jean Renoir (Vincent Rottier) - not yet a film director but a budding actor - spent time on sick leave from the front at his father’s Côte d’Azur home. The film flits between painter father Pierre-Auguste and Jean, which might leave some less cinephile viewers feeling short-changed. That said, it is a thoughtful meditation on Renoir père’s twilight years, where his legacy is already being eroded by the tumultuous changes taking place in Europe and the advance of technological reproduction of the sort that will make his son equally famous.

The fulcrum of the drama is the young Andrée Heuschling, who arrives at the Renoir house in the opening scene, to begin work as the painter’s model. A previous model, presumably too sensual by half, has just been dismissed by Madame Renoir, but just as Andrée crosses the threshold, we learn that the lady of the house has passed away. The grieving Renoir takes to Andrée immediately, rhapsodising that Titian would have loved her buxom, auburn beauty. Michel Bouquet plays the septuagenarian artist with genial patience, a man whose pride in artisanal work has long ago morphed into a William Morris-esque axiom. He is sceptical of Jean’s thespian ambitions but does not oppose them. The idyll he maintains at his Riviera home and studio is beset by the death of his wife, his own health troubles and the war that, however distant, intrudes into his tranquil life.

Jean woos Andrée and wins her without much difficulty (she would be his lover for the next sixteen years and he would make her a star of the French silent screen) but he still resolves to return to war, racked as he is with guilt at leaving his friends dying at the front. This leads to a temporary separation between the two — they are reunited when he discovers her working as a prostitute at an officers’ cabaret in Paris. Meanwhile, Pierre-Auguste begs her to return, unable to paint without her.

Renoir is a modest enough film and doesn’t tell you much new about the lives of either father or son but its quiet drama is ably mounted and avoids sliding into period picturesque (I have to say the film’s tie-in promotion with L’Occitane en Provence made me fear the worst). The only jarring note is Christa Theret as Andrée — she makes a game stab at the young model but she remains far too much a contemporary parisienne to convince as an early-twentieth-century Provençal peasant girl.

Curling King/ Gimme the Loot

Curling King (Kong Curling) (Ole Endresen - Norway) 90 minutes

When a team of Scottish ladies were winning gold at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, the Guardian dispatched a reporter to a number of Glasgow pubs to test the public level of enthusiasm. Unfortunately, few Weegies cared much for the achievements of the Olympians from the Lowlands, one person opining from his barstool: ‘Curling? Sure that’s just ice-skating for ugly people!’ It was both cruel and rude but made me laugh out loud when I read it. It seemed apt about curling, a rink sport that is both dynamic and inert and indelibly imbued with ink-black weeknights in chilly northern hemisphere provinces. Curling has an image problem but it doesn’t care.

So curling, then, is ripe for comedy. The Canadians, who are the Brazil of the sport, passed up the opportunity a couple of years back, instead turning out the quietly impressive Quebecois thriller named, simply, Curling. So it was up to Norway (men’s gold medallists at Salt Lake) to fashion curling into something comic. It’s a film that’s formulaic and occasionally annoying but endearing enough.

Atle Antonsen plays Truls Pålsen, the hot-shot captain of a local curling team, raised after his parents’ death by a gruff old curling coach. After suffering a nervous breakdown he is forced to give up the game but is coaxed back out of retirement by his former teammates to help win the local league. Curling King has its coat resting on many hooks, most of them Hollywood comedies — the most obvious references being The Big Lebowski and Kingpin. But Ole Endresen’s film has neither the Coens’ savvy nor the Farrellys’ ill-mannered rigour, while all the time wanting to siphon off the energy of each. European popular cinema is, as of yet, not quite homogenised but its vision is increasingly so. That vision is, these days, is almost exclusively concerned with Hollywood. In Curling King's case there’s nothing wrong with that — vulgar comedy is one of the things the studios do best these days.

Curling King seems very contrived in comparison though, with even its more egregious moments of dumbness relying on the echo of something it would dearly love to be. Having said that, it is not completely irredeemable. The film, however signposted its visual design might be, has a good feel for visual comedy (and I suspect its broad portraits of Lillehammer provincials would resonate greatly with Norwegian audiences). I laughed aloud at least half a dozen times (which is better than it sounds) and the audience I saw it with did so a bit more than that. All of which renders the foregoing criticism moot indeed. A film that will live on in post-pub or stoner entertainment without dazzling anyone, providing enough laughs to win one Winter Olympic discipline some unexpected new fans.

Gimme the Loot (Adam Leon - USA) 81 minutes

One of the world’s most-filmed cities, New York has enjoyed a new shot of freshness from its local independent cinema in recent years, much of it put together by one group of friends. Among the gems are Joshua Safdie’s The Pleasure of Being Robbed, Daddy Longlegs (which he co-directed with his brother Ben) and Frownland (directed by Daddy Longlegs ‘star’ Ronald Bronstein). The latest film from this ‘stable’ is Gimme the Loot, directed by Adam Leon, which is a wonderfully charming slice of Manhattan life as well as a extremely accomplished low-budget debut.

The film starts with footage from an early-90s public access-TV programme where a couple of New York taggers talk about a failed effort to tag the New York Mets’ home-run apple at Shea Stadium. The  apple becomes the holy grail of taggers and two decades later a pair of teenagers resolve to finally accomplish the act, after one of their creations gets messed up by a Queens crew using the apple as a calling card.

The problem for Sofia and Malcolm (brilliantly played by Tashiana Washington and Ty Hickson respectively) is they need to pay off the Shea Stadium janitor to get in and do the job before anyone arrives. They are broke so they embark on a trek across Manhattan to try and raise the loot, selling stolen spray-cans, collecting debts, and ripping off drug-dealers. Malcolm also plans to steal jewellery off a rich uptown girl he sells weed to but he needs to break into her apartment while she is out. The film is almost a caper, tinged with a certain degree of menace. It never gets dark — even the more threatening characters are cuddly in a way — and the teenage heroes are duckers and divers learning on the hoof more than hardened delinquents. They live by their wits though they don’t exactly thrive by them.

Gimme the Loot makes no great claims for itself other than its assured understanding of the rhythms and wit of the street. It’s a film that doesn’t need to cast its net far or wide for the punchy little drama it relates, and it is both smart and droll, with some great music thrown into the mix. A great New York counterpart to the fine low-budget Paris film Rengaine from last year, Gimme the Loot deserves a wide audience and Adam Leon and his various cast members are worth keeping an eye on.

Paradise: Love

Paradise: Love (Paradies: Liebe) (Ulrich Seidl - Austria) 120 minutes

Ulrich Seidl, a man few could accuse of having an overly indulgent view of humanity, tackles for his latest film sex tourism in Kenya (as practiced by women). Laurent Cantet has been here already with his 2005 film Heading South/Vers le sud, which was a credible enough if worthy take on the phenomenon, set at the height of Papa Doc’s terror in 1970s Haiti. Seidl is rather less interested in the phenomenon in a social sense than in how it reduces people to a brutish animalistic level. And there’s plenty of that on display in Paradise: Love; the problem is Seidl seems to be arbitrating such a little too much on both his own drama and argument. There is precious little separation of powers in Ulrich Seidl’s dialectic — the legislature and the judiciary crumple at once in the face of his own capricious executive decisions.

The centre of the drama is Teresa (Margarete Tiesel), a 50-year-old divorcee, who leaves her teenage daughter at fat camp (more of that later) when she heads off on a sand and sun holiday on the Kenyan coast, accompanied by a friend who is already a dab hand at negotiating the informal, unspoken arrangement of renumerated sex with younger African men. Teresa is initially diffident about taking advantage of the situation —  as well she might be — but, this being an Ulrich Seidl film, she’s hardly going to head to Africa to sit on the beach and sun herself innocently, is she?

She soon takes up with Munga, a seemingly kindly Kenyan, who pleasures her but soon begins taking her round to meet his family at work and at play and ‘suggesting’ monetary donations for all manner of things. The Austrian women, though they are outsiders themselves, being  middle-aged and mostly overweight, abandoned by the affections of their husbands and lovers, behave atrociously. They are cruel, crude and barely conceal their racism by speaking in German in front of the Kenyans they mock. With Ulrich Seidl, Michael Haneke, Markus Schleinzer, Elfriede Jelinek, few countries have been badmouthed so much by their artists as contemporary Austria has been (even if the likes of Jörg Haider, Josef Fritzl and Wolfgang Priklopil do surface from time to time, as if to prove them right). But Seidl is none too interested in the Africans either; they exist in his narrative to show the Austrians up as incorrigibly horrid and to exact increasingly venal demands themselves.

The film plods on to its inevitably bathetic conclusion, where the microbes in Seidl’s petri dish of disgusting humanity are finally given free rein. Seidl is a talented filmmaker, a brilliant framer of images and it is his assured pacing that manages to keep any interest at all for much of the film. It is his overall conception of drama that is in question — the dripping smugness and contempt is just too hard to take. He is like those people — we all know at least one — who go on Facebook to hector anyone who cares to listen about how nobody is paying any attention whatsoever to the tragedies unfolding in the world as we speak. Seidl thinks he knows something we don’t. Maybe he does, but it’s not a great deal more revelatory than the majority of people that have ever been exposed, however indirectly, to a harrowing experience or monstrous behaviour, might know. Because he is in the narrative business, he believes he is in some more privileged position regarding these uncomfortable truths. And he intends to continue as such: Paradise: Love is the first in a trilogy of (undoubtedly) misanthropic ruminations on the horror that is man. Part two will treat of Teresa’s daughter in her weight-loss retreat. Expect the dignity to be measured out in coffee spoons.

Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang

Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (Laurent Cantet - France/Canada) 143 minutes

I’m not sure why Laurent Cantet felt a second film adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s 1993 novel about a teenage girl gang in 1950s upstate New York was needed. The first version, a low-budget American production from 1996 barely registered other than for starring a young Angelina Jolie as Margaret 'Legs' Sadowsky, the gang’s mercurial leader. I’m not really sure why novels must perforce be transferred to the screen anyway, even if they are by as distinguished a writer as Joyce Carol Oates, but Cantet clearly saw something in Oates’ tale of proletarian revolt that aligned with his own leftish social concerns.

Unlike the original version, which vitiated Oates’s vision — and much of her point — by changing the era, the geographical location and the protagonist’s social class, Cantet’s Foxfire is largely faithful. But that’s not to say it’s really any more effective. Filmed in Canada, with mostly non-professional Canadian actors, the film looks the part and gets off to a decent start. A small cohort of teenage girls, some of them bullied by the boys in their school and humiliated by their teachers, form a secret society to avenge their ordeals. The opening half-hour is set up well and the atmospheric surf score by Canadian band Timber Timbre marries well with the action. But you soon begin to question Cantet’s decision to load the cast with inexperienced non-professionals, especially given the girls he casts all look a few years too old for their roles anyway.

Cantet got great performances out of non-professional teenagers for his last film, the Palme d’Or-winning The Class/Entre les murs, but those youngsters were, crucially playing characters very close to themselves. He was also aided by having François Bégaudeau, a former teacher, play himself in an adaptation of his own brilliantly supple novel. With Foxfire, the demands on an inexperienced ensemble cast for a period film are at times onerous and the results not always convincing. Some of the cast are also disappointingly inexpressive, such as Katie Coseni as Maddy, who is entrusted with the narration. It’s a bit unfair to single out a young actress like this but hearing her read Oates' prose is akin to listening to an unmotivated classmate read from a book at a teacher’s insistence.

Another of Foxfire’s failings is its at times slipshod depiction of the era. We see few adults in the film and no parents other than Legs’ errant drunkard of a father. All this is highly improbable for 1955 when American teenagers were still being closely policed by their elders and gives the girls little of substance to rebel against. Similarly, the relationship between a wealthy businessman’s do-gooder daughter and the girls is only partially sketched and remains unpersuasive. And the film is long — 143 minutes — and after its opening half-hour soon loses momentum. All in all, a rather worthy film that irritates more than it inspires.