Monday, April 29, 2013

3 – Pablo Stoll Ward

3  (Pablo Stoll Ward – Uruguay/Argentina/Germany)  115 minutes

Uruguayan filmmaker Pablo Stoll Ward returns with his fourth film – his first two were co-directed with the late Juan Pablo Rebella. 3 tells the tale of a few months in the life of a semi-estranged nuclear family. Ana (Anaclara Ferreyra Palfy) is a disengaged seventeen-year-old, at risk of being expelled from school for constant truancy and lateness. Her mother, Graciela (Sara Bessio) is spending long hours at the hospital caring for her dying aunt. Meanwhile,  father Rodolfo (Humberto de Vargas) is becoming disillusioned with his dentistry practice while his second marriage turns sour. He then starts sniffing around the old family home, in the hope of ingratiating himself with his daughter and possibly sparking something up with his ex-wife.

Graciela, however has started seeing another carer she has met in the hospital, Dustin ("like Dustin Hoffman") (Néstor Guzzini). Ana spends her time chasing after older men, of vaguely rock-star allure, leaving Rodolfo, on his own in the family homestead he has managed to inveigle his way back into.

While 3 is certainly a likeable film, with fine performances from all, and Stoll has a gently, unobtrusive directorial touch, there are a few too many false notes in it. Ana, despite being uninterested in pretty much everything around her and approaching things with a consequently crippling lethargy, (nothing incredible in that for a teenager) still manages to get called up to the national handball team. The soundtrack is plastered with rock songs, sometimes overlaid in a very awkward fashion. It’s often distracting as is the guitar-driven score (the guitar is a risky instrument to use for film music – too often it can overwhelm the visuals). Rodolfo’s obsessive-compulsive tidiness is rather wearily contrasted with the more unkempt habits of Graciela. It is only really with Graciela that the film succeeds, largely thanks to an economy of means. She is a brooding, wounded woman, whose pride will not allow her to take her ex-husband back, however lonely and unfulfilling her life might be. Ultimately though, 3, for all its qualities, is overlong and has very little to set itself apart from numerous  similar recent films from the cone of South America.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Pietà – Kim Ki-duk

Pietà (Kim Ki-duk – South Korea) 104 minutes

An opening title card to Pietà announces that this is Kim Ki-duk’s 18th film. Having watched it, the only question I can ask myself is ‘how has he been allowed to make films for so long?’ Pietà is a travesty of crassness, emotional short-cuts and the jejune conviction common to people who just aren’t as bright as they think they are – its title alone is the sort of gauche pretentiousness familiar from the international art world. None of this is terribly new in Kim’s work – his films have for years, with a few exceptions, been a dreary trawl through art-house sadism. Now he has started winning awards at major film festivals (Pietà won the Golden Lion at Venice – more of which later), which is likely to give a worrying imprimatur to his very inconsiderable oeuvre.

Pietà follows a sadistic (why of course) debt collector Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), a man with seemingly no ties to society (Kim often addresses the inconveniences of social reality by ignoring it altogether). Lee Kang-do’s modus operandi is to make his debtors sign an insurance policy and then maim them, often using their own tools, himself recouping the dividend. Anyone with a passing familiarity with insurance companies (or has simply seen Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity) will find the credibility of this ruse quickly strained. But such factitiousness is par for the course in a Kim Ki-duk film.

One day, a woman, Jang Mi-sun (Jo Min-su) appears on Lee Kang-do’s doorstep, claiming to be his mother. His initial reaction is to rape her (ah, don’t you love the edginess of art school graduates?) but she hangs around and insists upon cooking for him and even following him around on the job and helping him out. She also manages to convince him that she is her mother, which doesn’t prevent him from cutting a lump from her leg, cooking it and making her eat it. It’s all pretty nasty stuff, embalmed in a general misanthropy that would make Michel Houellebecq, Larry Clark or Gaspar Noé blush. I could accept the misanthropy if it wasn’t executed in such an obviously cack-handed way. Michael Haneke is often accused by his detractors of engineering his scenarios in a laboratory, all the easier to infuse the work with his own disgust at his subjects and, by extension, humanity as a whole. It is not an accusation without foundation, but, compared to Kim Ki-duk, Haneke is very much an Organic misanthropist, a free-range miserablist. Nothing in Kim Ki-duk’s films rings true. Every scene, especially the ones of more wrenching violence, appear channelled directly from Kim’s unconscious. It’s a suffocating feeling to have.

So how did a film like Pietà win top prize at Venice? Well, it is not unprecedented for film festivals to reward bad films. By many accounts, Kim’s film was a compromise award due to festival rules forcing the Michael Mann-led jury to choose which awards to give to Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which picked up best director and best acting awards. Anderson’s film was vastly overrated in my opinion, but would have been a far more worthy recipient than Pietà or most other films in what was generally a mediocre festival line-up. Kim Ki-duk has managed to fashion an international name for himself largely because he came to prominence at a time when South Korean cinema was gaining an international audience. Kim’s films straddle the divide between the outré violence of the likes of Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho and the more contemplative films of Hong Sang-soo and Lee Chang-dong. That is probably enough to scramble the signals of critics and festival judges alike.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Clip – Maja Miloš

Clip (Klip) (Maja Miloš – Serbia) 100 minutes

Any parents of teenagers who might have been put on edge by Spring Breakers will be apoplectic upon watching Clip, Maja Miloš’s debut feature about hyper-sexed, drug-taking, hard-partying Serbian adolescents. It’s a film that doesn’t leave much to the imagination, what with real sex scenes (though none involving minors, a title card at the end of the film assures us); it’s raw, rough and a very intelligent first film.

People have already compared it to Larry Clark’s kids, but Clip comes across as far more natural and less the fantasies of an older man envious at youth being more or less wasted on the young. Like Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, it is told from the perspective of a young working-class girl – Jasna (Isidora Simijonovic), a pretty but self-obsessed 17-year-old, who lives with her family on a gloomy housing estate in a Belgrade suburb. Her mother has her hands full caring for Jasna’s father, who is wheezing his way to an early grave, but Jasna is largely oblivious, more interested in going out and getting trashed with her friends and getting down and dirty with her boyfriend Đole, whose interest in her appears not to extend beyond the carnal. Jasna’s excuse for not involving herself more with her family’s troubles is she has to revise but we see her doing very little of that.

In the opening scene, we see Jasna being filmed in a creepily sexual way by a man on a mobile phone. It turns out it’s her own phone and she is a wilful participant – she hadn’t until then realised that the phone could record video – it sets the tone for the rest of the film, which she spends recording her every waking moment, and that of those around her. She films without any real discrimination as to her subjects, it is constant rolling coverage, and it means her filming appears not cute and inquisitive like the video diaries of many young people but menacing and intrusive. There is also a sense that Jasna and her friends have already seen more than enough reality and they want everything to be mediated through technology. Jasna and Đole film their sexual acts with gleeful abandon and he in particular is more interested in what he sees on the small screen of a mobile phone – at one point pushing Jasna away when she tries to fellate him, preferring instead to masturbate to a previously recorded film of her pleasuring herself.

The lives of the kids are given completely to hedonism – it is all parties, boozing, lines of cheap coke, salacious selfies. They take their pointers from porn films and trashy Euro pop booty videos. There is no concept of sex as rite of passage here – it is very much been there, done that. These are the sort of teenagers you don’t really have to tell ‘it gets better’ but rather, ‘I’m afraid it’s all downhill from here’. And yet, the film and its young characters are not all that unlikeable. This is down to the sprightly, natural performances of the young cast and also Miloš’s brilliantly assured direction. Though a decade or so older than the group she portrays, there is a clear empathy in her handling of the milieu. She refrains from being judgemental, even when the film veers into dark territory.

The film’s title and main conceit point to a punch-line you continually expect to be delivered. One does arrive but it is something else entirely. There are many that will be scandalised by the ending that Miloš chooses but she is not in the business of moralising or stepping in between her characters. The film, for all the youthful exuberance of its cast and its sympathetic performances, is a bleak one at heart and it is probably all the bleaker for being so tolerable for so much of its running time. Though maybe not a film for teenagers (not that that will stop many from watching it), Clip is definitely one of the best yet made about teenage life.

Dormant Beauty – Marco Bellochio

Dormant Beauty (Bella addormentata) (Marco Bellochio – Italy/France) 115 minutes

Marco Bellochio’s first film, Fists in the Pocket (1965) starred Lou Castel as a young malcontent who kills off, one by one, all the members of his family. Bellochio’s latest also involves putting an end to the days of family members though this time the context is less sinister: termination of life support for vegetative patients. The film takes place against the backdrop of the Eluana Eglano case – Italy’s answer to Terri Schiavo – a patient who had been in a permanent vegetative state for 17 years and whose family was fighting for the right to turn off life support. Silvio Berlusconi’s government and the Catholic church led a campaign against termination with Berlusconi saying, with unfailing crassness, that Eglano ‘looked pretty well and could even give birth to a son’.

Though the case is explicitly referred to in the film and the actual nursing home in Udine where Eluana was being treated is used, the action focuses on a number of peripheral, fictional characters. Among them are Roberto and his bipolar brother Pippo, supporters of the family’s right to end the life support; Roberto starts a clandestine romance with Maria (Alma Rohrwacher – previously seen in The Solitude of Prime Numbers), one of the Catholic pro-life protesters. Maria’s father (the ever excellent Toni Servillo, best known outside Italy for his role as Giulio Andreotti in Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo) is a Senator in Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party, who is being nagged by an outbreak of conscience that prompts him to refuse the compromise vote his leader has imposed on the party. His wife, and Maria’s mother is also in a vegetative state, as is the daughter of a French actress, splendidly named Divina Madre (Isabelle Huppert), who is similarly opposed to pulling the plug, against her son’s wishes. Finally, there is a young doctor, played by Bellochio’s son and regular collaborator Pier Giorgio, who is watching over Rossa, a thirty-something recidivist junkie, who has sunk into a coma.

If that sounds a bit contrived, it is. Bellochio’s attempt to dramatise the polemic between contemporary secular ethics and a dogmatic Catholic fetish for heart-beats and pulses is intelligent and compelling from a socio-historical point of view. It is far too schematic though, with some of the outlying relationships struggling to come to life – Huppert, in particular, seems to be there only to attract investment to the film. The film is also dramatically sluggish – though Dormant Beauty treats of a matter of life and death, it doesn’t move with an attendant urgency. It is a relatively minor Bellochio, not a patch on his last film Vincere, which  told the tale of Mussolini’s criminally neglected mistress Ida Dalser. Dormant Beauty does impart the usual Bellochian chilliness that pervades the grand houses of unhappy bourgeois families, which he has been cultivating ever since Lou Castel was balling up his fists in his pockets.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Grandmaster – Wong Kar-wai

The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi) (Wong Kar-wai – Hong Kong/China) 130 minutes

Wong Kar-wai returns, six years on from the calamity that was his first American film My Blueberry Nights. That episode looked to have taken a lot out of him, both commercially and creatively. The fact it was a failure mattered less to many of his fans in the West than the suspicion it raised that maybe his films had actually been that flimsy all along, and that we never noticed because they were in a language few of us had even a rudimentary grasp of. Maybe Takeshi Kaneshiro’s flooded apartment and penchant for out-of-date tinned pineapple in Chungking Express or Lesley Cheung and Tony Leung’s decamping to Buenos Aires on a whim in Happy Together were just as twee and insubstantial as the gauche and self-conscious story at the heart of My Blueberry Nights. Wong wasn’t helped by casting two such insipid leads in that film as Norah Jones and Jude Law but he stands by it, saying it is a ‘very Chinese film’. His earlier Hong Kong films ultimately remain untainted by it but fans might have been forgiven for worrying as his newer projects got held up and he expended most of his energy on producing commercials and promotional films for luxury brands.

The Grandmaster is Wong’s first foray into the martial arts genre since 1994’s Ashes of Time, the film of his that is probably least remembered by most. It is a fictionalised biopic of the life of Ip Man, the pioneer of Wing Chun kung fu in Hong Kong, among whose students was Bruce Lee. Its delayed production means it enters a crowded field, with three other films based on Ip’s life having been produced in the past five years. One of those starred Hong Kong’s biggest current martial arts star Donnie Yen. Wong decides to entrust the role to his favourite leading man Tony Leung, and has other regulars such as Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen (reunited after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) alongside him. That gives his film a very particular "Wong-ian" cast, but the martial arts scenes are not any the less spectacular for that.

The film starts in Guangzhou in 1936, as Ip Man, already middle aged, battles against other southern Chinese kung fu masters for the right to be the southern heir designated by the northern master Gong Yutian. Ip wins the competition and then the challenge against Gong and he is now the counterpart to the northern heir "The Razor" Mo San (Chen). He is then challenged by Gong’s daughter, the fictional Gong Er (Zhang), who wants to restore the family honour and she defeats him by the slimmest of margins. Their fight is erotically charged but their love remains chaste and unspoken, bound as they are by convention as rivals, not to mention Ip’s married status.

The Japanese invasion plunges Ip’s well-off family into poverty and ultimately tragedy. Mo San turns collaborator with the Japanese and kills Gong Yutian; Gong Er swears revenge on Mo San against her dying wishes. This provides the bulk of the central part of the film, which then fast-forwards to 1950, after the end of the Occupation and the Civil War, by which time Ip Man, Gong Er and Mo San (the latter unbeknownst to the other two) have fled to Hong Kong.

The Grandmaster is not a film without its flaws – as often in Wong’s films, supporting characters are somewhat sketchily portrayed, and the slickness of Philippe Le Sourde’s Hollywood-inflected photography makes you pine for Wong’s usual cinematographer Christopher Doyle. The kung fu sequences are brilliantly mounted but there is an overweening insistence on highlighting every little textural detail, every raindrop splashing off Ip’s coat, every body crashing through a wooden wall. It’s splendidly rich, like fine Chinese lacquered wood, but Wong’s cinema, even at its most visually stunning, is more like a roughly-hewn stool. The visual palette is toned down when the Japanese invade – something that is announced with marvellous visual economy à la Hollywood of old, by the reflection of the Rising Sun flag in a dark puddle. From there on, the film is rougher and darker looking, yet it retains the imprint of a historical epic.

Though the subject matter might be a new departure for Wong Kar-wai, the thematic concerns are the same as ever. The Grandmaster is a film about love gone awry, love thwarted by impossible circumstances and time irretrievably lost. It is also a very moving meditation on art, creation and mortality. Gong Er, the mistress of "the sixty-four moves", gives up kung fu, reasoning that other traditions have also disappeared into thin air, so hers is no more of a loss. She succumbs to opium addiction, leaving Ip Man to pass his knowledge on (Ip, in reality, was also an opium addict, though Wong chooses to omit this). Perhaps it is an artistic fragility that has been foremost in Wong Kar-wai’s mind since his American misadventure. The sense of ephemerality at the core of The Grandmaster is one that haunts most artists, even more so the more successful they get. The film reads like a hopeful plea for permanence in the face of wasting change.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Side Effects – Steven Soderbergh

Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh – USA) 106 minutes

I can’t say I have ever really loved a film by Steven Soderbergh but he is a man I have a lot of respect for. It’s hard not to admire him: a director who bounced back to Hollywood bankability after a glittering start to his career ran aground; a man of Stakhanovite industry who has strung together almost thirty features in less than twenty-five years; he juggles writing, directing, producing, editing and photography; he is famed for bringing productions in on or even under budget, something that has eased his latter career in a notoriously philistine Hollywood. He is also capable of balancing commercial accessibility and more left-field experimentation.

To be honest, it is only down to personal taste that I have never fallen completely for a Soderbergh film, because there have been many good ones. He is at his best when he reaches for levity (Out of Sight, The Informant!, the Oceans 11 franchise, Magic Mike) or takes formal and thematic risks (Schizopolis, The Limey, Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience). Side Effects, supposedly his last theatrical release (the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra is being made for HBO but is being released in cinemas outside the US) falls between those two stools. A medical thriller, at first glance it appears strikingly similar to Soderbergh’s last collaboration with writer Scott Z. Burns, Contagion, a horrendously hammy swine-flu thriller that was inexplicably watchable, if only for all the unintentional laughs it provoked. In the latest film, Rooney Mara plays Emily, a depressive young woman whose trader husband (Channing Tatum) is just getting out of prison after serving time for insider dealing. After an attempted suicide, she is confided to Jonathan Banks, a Manhattan psychiatrist (Jude Law), who prescribes her various anti-depressants that don’t seem to work, until he puts her on one that he is trialling while on the payroll of a pharmaceutical company.

This is where the side effects of the title come in, throwing the lives of both Emily and Jonathan into freefall, though one doesn’t want to divulge too much in advance about what happens. Soderbergh moves things along with brisk efficiency and Mara is excellent as the doe-eyed, troubled Emily, an at times frighteningly realistic portrayal of black depression. Less good is Law, though to be fair he is also less bad than he often is; there are few prominent actors so lacking in empathy and charisma, whose delivery is so askew and stilted. Law’s career nadir – after a long dive – was probably the over-the-top conspiracy-theorist blogger he played in Contagion; here he grates from time to time, mainly in his overly transparent acting – there are far too many lines enunciated as if his voice is negotiating a hairpin bend, far too many gross physical gestures to underline his angst or anger. Law is like those self-satisfied public school old boys who talk loudly when in a group of people just on the off-chance they might say something witty and be overheard. That said, it just about works here because his character is not really meant to be too sympathetic either. Even worse though is Catherine Zeta-Jones as Emily’s Machiavellian former shrink, a cardboard sinister vamp if ever there was one.

Side Effects changes tack on a number of occasions throughout the film and ends up being something quite different from what it started out as. Its protean plot and darkly bitter intrigue reminded me of Brian de Palma’s recent Passion (each has one of the Lisbeth Salanders – de Palma casting Noomi Rapace) but the latter film is more satisfying because its foreign-set borderline cheapness gives it a vastly more unrespectable air. Soderbergh’s retirement may not be definitive but Side Effects is a decent enough effort to leave us with for now. I am still waiting on a Soderbergh film I can say I love unreservedly though.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

La Maison de la radio – Nicolas Philibert

La Maison de la radio (Nicolas Philibert – France/Japan) 103 minutes

The French love their radio. Polls of French people consistently report greater levels of trust in radio news than print or TV; knowledgeable French football fans prefer radio to television commentary for games; telling people you work in radio generally elicits a warmth that few other media positions can generate; politicians are far more likely to appear in studio on a morning radio-news broadcast than on TV. And the French love no radio more than their public-service broadcaster, Radio France. The national broadcaster is revered by both left and right, in a way the BBC used to be in Britain. There is no Daily Mail-style campaign questioning the amount of money allotted to Radio France – it is more or less untouchable.

The reason for this love lies in the company’s roots. Founded in 1946, Radio France was a Gaullist operation from the off. And, in France, radio is inextricably linked with the General, whose Radio Londres broadcasts from the BBC kept the cause of French freedom alive throughout the Occupation. Radio France has its own splendid headquarters, la maison de la radio – the doyen of French broadcasting, in the 16th arrondissement by the Seine. Henri Bernard’s vast sinuous curtain-walled edifice was one of the glories of the trentes glorieuses, a building so iconic it has been incorporated into the station’s logo. Nicolas Philibert’s new documentary is an observational portrait of several months in the building among the 4300 employees of the company’s seven stations.

Like Frederick Wiseman, who has recently completed a number of fly-on-the-wall documentaries of Paris institutions, Philibert does not employ voice-over or captions; unlike Wiseman, Philibert dispenses with interviews too. It gives his film a more free-flowing air though it also means it lacks the depth of Wiseman’s films and non-French audiences might wish for greater context to help them understand what’s going on (even I missed a few references that clearly resonated greater with the audience I watched the film with).

The film takes place throughout the course of 2011; we hear snippets about the Japanese tsunami, the Arab Spring, the election violence in Ivory Coast, the Strauss-Kahn trial in New York. Guests file in and out of the studios, some of them famous – Jean-Claude Carrière and Umberto Eco – others less so. We see young journalists being trained, sound engineers at work, reporters making preparations to go out into the field, the station’s famed orchestra and choir recording. We get the chance to eavesdrop on morning editorial conferences that are replete with wry humour: ‘We have to get a sociologist, that’s very Radio France’, ‘a left-wing sociologist, to be precise.’ We even catch a glimpse of such ordinary departments as the cafeteria and the garage, where the fleet of Radio France outdoor broadcast vehicles is tuned.

Philibert’s film has a neutral tone even though it is clearly sympathetic. Detractors might say it is far too complaisant and offers a slice of French society as utopian as that in Philibert’s earlier schoolhouse film To Be and to Have (which I found more grating than most people did). If it is gentle and admiring though, it lavishes its admiration for the people working for the company rather than the institution itself. In this respect, it is much less annoyingly eulogistic than the recent New York Times love-in Page One. La Maison de la radio will probably be best appreciated by French people and francophiles but anyone with an interest in the eternally resilient medium of radio will surely be interested.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines – Derek Cianfrance

The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance – USA) 140 minutes

Derek Cianfrance’s third feature promises much but ultimately comes unstuck, in spite of its undeniable qualities. The film focusses on a fairground daredevil motorcyclist played by Ryan Gosling, and a rookie cop (Bradley Cooper) with whom he has a brief, fateful encounter that changes the lives of all in the film. It is hard to talk about The Place Beyond the Pines too much without giving away spoilers but I’ll try my best.

Gosling plays Luke Glanton, who learns, when visiting Schenectady, New York that an old flame of his, Romina (Eva Mendes), has had a son by him. She refuses to leave her current partner but continues to see him surreptitiously nonetheless. Luke’s plan for winning back Romina and Jason is to put himself in a financially comfortable position, something that is highly improbable, to say the least. He meets Robin, a mechanic and small-time criminal, who suggests they rob banks together, using Luke’s motorcycle prowess as a getaway.

The film is divided into three sections, or movements, the third of which takes place fifteen years later, and which involves the sons of Luke and Avery Cross, the cop whose story takes up most of the second part. This third section is where the film’s credibility begins to flag, with far too many plot irregularities and coincidences swept under the carpet. Stretching the film across generations is also overreaching – while it may seem to have Shakepearean potential for some, it can also very easily go Jeffrey Archer. Cianfrance’s film is not quite the latter but it is certainly not the former either.

There is a problem with the way Cianfrance, a talented director, furnishes his story. The story arcs are a little unconvincing and he tries to invest the film with an unnecessarily mythic air, with the ethereal chants of Mike Patton’s score (yes, he of Faith No More); it is as if he has prepared the film in advance for greatness, much as parents go to great efforts to get a children’s room ready before the birth of a child. Unfortunately, the story is just not really up to this heady challenge – it’s mundane, dull and strives above itself at times. The teenagers in the third section are far too old, especially Emory Cohen as AJ Cross, whose Brando-esque performance is severely misjudged. The script also jars in parts – do petty criminals really use management jargon like ‘skillset’? The title, which comes from the Mohawk meaning for Schenectady, is an admirable enough one in its own right yet it sits strangely with the film as a whole.

While Cianfrance’s writing might leave something to be desired, he is a fine director, with many of the sequence’s stunningly filmed, such as the fairground scenes early on and the motorcycle chase after a botched robbery. Cooper, Gosling and Mendes are all excellent and it is a pleasure to see Ray Liotta in yet another small-time tough-guy role. Liotta’s career seems to be back on track in a minor key – sometimes I think the witness protection program Henry Hill was assigned was Ray Liotta’s career. You can’t fault Derek Cianfrance’s ambition or sincerity and he is talented enough a director to turn out something great at some point. For the moment, The Place Beyond the Pines, admirable as it is in many ways, is not it.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Berberian Sound Studio – Peter Strickland

Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland – UK) 94 minutes

Though only a short distance separates the UK and France, British films are usually among the last to make it here, if, indeed, they make it  at all. Unless the director is Ken Loach or Mike Leigh, the film will most likely languish in distribution hell for anything up to 18 months. The reason is the French just aren’t too taken with British cinema – often with good reason, but it is frustrating that sometimes good British films get their releases unjustly held up.

One such film is Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, a brilliant homage to Italian 1970’s giallo horror films and also an endlessly fascinating exploration of the use of sound in cinema. Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, an uptight, socially inept British Foley artist, who has been hired, for some reason, to provide the sound effects for a low-budget Italian horror film. The year is 1976 and the job takes place on a cheap, fusty sound stage in Rome, the Berberian Sound Studio. He immediately ruffles the feathers of the sound editor, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), with his faux pas and social awkwardness and he is disturbed to find out he is working on a ‘horror film’. When he meets the mercurial director Santini (Antonio Mancino) though, the latter upbraids him for calling it that, saying it is a ‘Santini film’, not some run-of-the-mill horror.

The film in question is your standard giallo fare, of the sort Dario Argento, Mario Bava or Lucio Fulci used to turn out (or, as in the case of Argento, still do). The film has been shot but the audio and dialogue needs to be overlaid in post-dubbing, as was common with Italian films of all kinds until the 1980s. It doesn’t help that Gilderoy is squeamish nor that he is being disturbed  by strange nocturnal goings-on in the bedsit he has been allotted in the studio. His efforts to get his expenses reimbursed also meet with Kafkaesque indifference – the production company seems to have as liberal an attitude to paying its workers as online publications these days do. Being a consummate professional though, Gilderoy gets on with the job, hacking melons, splatting marrows, topping radishes and blending tomatoes, all to get the requisite fearsome sounds of bodies being slashed, crushed, necks being snapped and chainsaws revved up.

The conceit is not a new one, of course – Coppola’s The Conversation and de Palma’s Blow Out both had sound-engineers as heroes who discover sinister things hidden under the innocuous layers of everyday life. Former Cahiers du cinéma editor, Thierry Jousse, did a similar thing in his 2005 film, Les Invisibles. What makes Berberian Sound Studio different from those though is it folds the action back on cinema itself, making Gilderoy increasingly prey to the very film he is working on. He asks to be excused on a number of occasions and there are suggestions the film might contain actual snuff scenes. But that is all left to the imagination. We see very little of the film, hearing only its soundtrack. About two-thirds of the way through, the film alters its form quite ingeniously, beginning with a cut to a typical 1970s BBC nature documentary, which at first seems to provide some respite to the mild-mannered Gilderoy from his professional nightmare. The rest of the film is like a hall of mirrors as it shifts shapes continuously.

Sound is, paradoxically, the thing that really makes film. Once the studios decided audiences wanted to hear actors speak, the stakes in filmmaking were upped. If you don’t get your sound right, your film will not fly. A film shot on low-resolution stock or even with indifferent lighting can be rendered watchable if it is aurally convincing; the most impressively photographed movie on the other hand is nothing if  it is not accompanied by a credible sonic texture. Sound-recording artists and engineers rarely get the credit they deserve for making cinema watchable, never mind tolerable. Berberian Sound Studio goes some of the way towards rectifying that while also being a wonderfully inventive film in its own right, in which the initial plot device is far more than a gimmick. The best film I have seen so far this year.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Samsara – Ron Fricke

Samsara (Ron Fricke – USA) 102 minutes

I have a soft spot for Ron Fricke’s 1993 film Baraka as it marked the beginning of my adult cinephilia, being the first film I went to see upon moving to Dublin for college that year. It didn’t exactly spark my interest in cinema – I was already determined to go to the movies two to three times a week once I hit college – but it was the film that most grabbed my attention that particular week. Twenty-years and thousands of trips to the cinema later, Fricke and producer Mark Magidson are back with Samsara, a film that might, in a loose sense, be considered a sequel, or, failing that, a companion piece.

The style and format of Baraka are unchanged – Samsara is a documentary of sorts without any commentary or dialogue, with long, sumptuously lit, wordless observations of landscapes and peoples from around the world. It must be said though that Fricke doesn’t focus quite so much this time on people. What is unchanged from Baraka is the film’s Orientalism – Fricke obviously sees Asia (and, to a lesser extent, Africa) as giving great mileage in terms of Otherness, be it an inner spiritual purity or, equally importantly, mass. The opening sequence of the 1000-hand dance or the Buddhist monks of Thikse Monastery in India constructing a Mandala provide us with the spiritual core that, it seems Westerners are incapable of mustering. Scenes of desolation on a rubbish dump in Manila denote the noble savagery of the lives of the world’s poorest, while the now-famous choreographed dances of the Cebu Detention Centre's orange-clad inmates give the collective ballast to a film that just loves patterns, especially ones that go on for as far as the eye can see. (The inmates’ choreography has always struck me, not a bit uncomfortably, as an apt metaphor for the coercion inherent in elaborate dance routines).

China is the biggest hitter in this medley of mass and grace for Fricke – it is capable of extraordinary beauty (the afore-mentioned dance) but also despairing mundanity, witnessed in the scenes of Chinese workers in their factories. Fricke is no doubt fearful of the inevitable erosion of the Chinese soul, though the worst thing that industrialisation can bring about for him is probably making the Chinese more like the West. And Westerners, for Fricke, exist only as commuters, to be portrayed as ants on the São Paulo Metro, or as dumb consumers of fast food, or uncompromising gun nuts, as seen in one scene of an American family glaring at the camera, armed to the teeth. (Throughout the film any human contact with the camera is captured solely in this Steve McCurry-esque glare.) Of course Fricke could find plenty of poverty-stricken people in the West but it might be just a little hard to square with his idealised view of spiritual richness among the misery.

He could also find spirituality in the West but the places of worship he shows – Sainte chapelle in Paris and the Sistine Chapel – are unpeopled and of interest to him only for their scale and splendour. In reality, the built environment doesn’t interest him too much – as with much else in the film, it just provides scale and mass. Fricke hammers home the point far too often, using, as he did in Baraka, time-lapse photography to turn the passing of time into spatial quantity. Time-lapse is a rather dull-edge with which to make a point, seeing as it is now the method of choice for any budding filmmaker with the equipment and a Vimeo account but nothing to say. For all Fricke’s efforts to invest his images with some greater import, his editing pulls the intellectual rug from under him.

Fricke and Magidson said they didn’t want to make a political point in the film, which is a bit like those people you know who say they are not very interested in politics, but will cast their vote unfailingly for right-wing parties. Whatever the filmmakers' intention there is an activist bent to their film, and its a fuzzy, self-righteous one, not unlike that of dim-witted people who share preachy jpgs on Facebook from pages that invariably have the word ‘truth’ in their title. Fricke and Magidson are equally convinced they are on to something that few others are capable of seeing. The reality is there are people that do most of what they attempt in the film far better and more intelligently, from Werner Herzog to Austrian documentarist Nikolaus Geyrhalter and Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, not to mention countless jobbing National Geographic filmmakers. That’s not to say Samsara can’t be enjoyed – it is visually stunning and the 70mm photography is probably even better than in Baraka, giving it a pleasing coffee-table-book appeal. Though Fricke can record some fantastic images – the scenes of devastation in New Orleans post-Katrina in particular – Samsara is a feast for the eyes but, alas, a famine for the mind.

SAMSARA Theatrical Trailer from Baraka & Samsara on Vimeo.

Friday, April 12, 2013

5 Broken Cameras – Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi

5 Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat/Guy Davidi —  Palestine/Israel/France/Netherlands) 94 minutes

Palestinian farmer-turned-video journalist Emad Burnat’s Oscar-nominated film 5 Broken Cameras is a sharp piece of activist documentary whose very existence is a blow struck against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

In the film’s opening sequence, Burnat lays out his five cameras, all of them smashed and unusable; the five of them are of progressively more professional quality, reflecting his own blossoming into a talented video-journalist. The film documents, in linear sequence, the lifetime of each camera, using the footage shot by each of them. Emad started filming initially just out of amusement, to film his young family as they grew up and to document the lives of his fellow villagers, in Bil’in, a hill-side village in the West Bank.

When engineers turn up one day in 2004, and seal off the villagers’ land to start building a Jewish settlement, Emad begins to film the weekly protests he and the villagers mount against the construction. (The arrival of the engineers is portrayed, quite sardonically, in the classic natives-meet-colonisers mould  – a coy but perfectly legitimate formulation.) When Emad’s first camera is irreparably damaged, he acquires a new one and continues filming. Cameras have been a vital tool for the popular protests against the Occupation in recent years, with both Israeli and Palestinian human-rights NGOs distributing them and training activists in their use. The Israeli Defence Force, unhappy with their illegal activities being recorded, do their best to impede the filming, either by coercion or outright violence – three of Emad’s cameras meet their end at the hands of either bullets or tear-gas canisters. The structure of the film, then, embodies the tenacity and the stubbornness of the villagers’ resistance, and, you might say, the Palestinian resistance as a whole. The cameras break but each time they are replaced and filming continues.

And all Emad need do is film. The IDF obliges with its actions, having a trigger-happy policy of shooting protesters they find irritating, even when they know they are in full view of the camera. Probably the most shocking scene of the film, in fact, is not the shooting dead of one of the villagers (which is shocking enough) but one where an Israeli soldier shoots a manacled prisoner in the leg, gangland-style. The military constantly threaten Emad, as well as other camera-men, telling him he is encroaching on a military zone (including once when he answers the door in the middle of the night). As the resistance to the settlement gains momentum – and draws support from Israeli and international activists – the IDF takes to swooping in the middle of the night and arbitrarily arresting the village children.

After several years of facing off with the IDF and thuggish settlers – mostly peacefully, with the occasional outbreak of stone-throwing by local youths, the village finally gets help from an unlikely source – the Israeli Supreme Court, which orders the Israeli separation fence to be moved, thus giving back some of the villagers’ land. It’s not much of a victory though as the same year, the Supreme Court also rules the Mattityahu East settlement legal; meanwhile more and more Palestinian land gets eaten away, making a further mockery of the Oslo Accords and the two-state solution, which is now dead in the water. The Israelis are, in the words of Palestinian-American activist Ali Abunimah, eating the pizza while negotiating over it.

There are two sides to many aspects of the Israel-Palestine conflict, some much more asymmetric than others. On the Occupation, however, there are no two sides. Israel’s continued presence on the West Bank is a violation of international law, the Geneva Conventions, countless UN resolutions, the Oslo Accords and even Israeli law itself. Burnat and his Israeli co-director Guy Davidi may, naturally, be selective in what they show in their montage, as any documentarist will be, but the presence of Israeli troops and settlers on Burnat’s camera absolves him and Davidi of any responsibility to be scrupulous. Israel and its citizens are trespassing on land occupied following a conflict and the directors of 5 Broken Cameras are under no obligation to show their side of the story.

5 Broken Cameras is as much a testimony as it is a documentary. It is a glimpse of the long view the Palestinian people have come to adopt in recent decades, even as hopes have been dashed and their military and political representatives have been rendered ineffective. And the Palestinians, outraged as they are, have also learned to be phlegmatic. When Burnat and his wife and son Djibril, a child whose young life is itself documented by the film, went to Los Angeles to attend the Oscars, they were detained by US Immigration, who refused to believe his reason for being there. Though clearly unimpressed by the INS’ attempt at humiliating him, he shrugged it off, saying it was something he and other Palestinians experienced on a daily basis. Emad Burnat will have more cameras broken, and may even end up in hospital again, as he did during the course of filming, but he won’t be giving up the fight too easily.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

I'm So Excited – Pedro Almodóvar

I’m So Excited (Los amantes pasajeros) (Pedro Almodóvar – Spain) 90 minutes

I am old enough to remember a time when film critics approached a new Pedro Almodóvar film with all their critical faculties intact. That era ended around about the time of 1997’s Live Flesh and was well and truly vanquished with All about My Mother, released two years later and which garnered Almodóvar the prize for Best Direction at Cannes and the first of his two Oscars. Both those films were excellent and their success was welcome reward for a filmmaker who had, until then, not always been given his critical due. His films throughout the 80s and 90s were of varying quality, of course; the truth is his output since his canonisation at the end of the latter decade has also been uneven. Not that you would know from the critical adulation, where even lugubriously disjointed melodramas such as Talk to Her and Bad Education have been acclaimed unquestioningly. To utter a dissenting voice about El Gran Pedro’s work these days is one of the great heresies of cinephilia, akin to saying unkind things in public about one’s grandmother.

I have quite liked his recent films, with The Skin I Live In, a shrewd reworking of Les yeux sans visage, one of the finest of his career, vindicating his decision to invite Antonio Banderas back into the fold after being absent from his films for a couple of decades. Banderas also appears, in a cameo along with Penelope Cruz, at the beginning of his new film I’m So Excited. That they play airport ground staff whose amorous carelessness inadvertently endangers an aircraft about to take off, gives an indication that the latest Almodóvar is not too solemn an enterprise. The film is a broadly-stroked, garishly colourful comedy set in the cabin of a plane on a flight from Madrid to Mexico City. The cabin crew (or at least those we see on screen the most) are all flamingly camp tequila-slamming Romantics, headed by flamboyant Basque Joserra (Javier Cámara), the pilot and co-pilot are bisexual and bi-curious redpectively, while the passengers include a virginal middle-aged psychic (‘my powers scare men away’) played by Lola Dueñas, a bossy in-service inspector (Cecilia Roth), a caddish heart-breaking Lothario (Guillermo Toledo) and a Bolaño-reading Mexican hit-man (Hugo Silva).

The flight gets into trouble early on when it is found wheel-blocks have got stuck in the landing gear. The cabin crew have luckily had the foresight to tranquillise all passengers in economy class so panic is averted as the plane circles endlessly above Toledo (‘La Mancha-Castilla, not Ohio’, as Joserra specifies), hoping for a runway to come free somewhere. The middle section of the film is cobbled together fairly half-heartedly, held together by a rather gratuitous song-and-dance sequence involving the Pointer Sisters’ 80s classic (hence the awful English title, which lacks the poetic pun of the original). The choreography is provided by none other than Blanca Li, who, you imagine, probably gave her instructions over the phone. It’s a curious use of heavy resources for such flimsy ends but Almodóvar is probably at a point where he can do whatever he pleases, and I’m So Excited is a bagatelle that he most likely put together on the hoof while waiting for a more substantial idea to come along – he chose not to submit it for any of the major film festivals, though, then again, he did likewise with Talk to Her or Bad Education. It’s amiable if forgetful fluff, a vibrant echo of his earlier Movida work made with more resources. Now, I wonder what the critical reaction will be…

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Two Films from the Balkans

Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos – Greece) 93 minutes

Children of Sarajevo (Djeca) (Aida Begić – Bosnia-Herzegovina/Germany/France/Turkey) 90 minutes

Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2009 film Dogtooth, winner of the Un certain regard award at Cannes, was a surprise sleeper hit around Europe, its success largely propelled by word of mouth. Surprising mainly because Lanthimos’s style – static shots, mannered acting and absurdist drama – doesn’t lend itself naturally to public appeal. His follow-up, Alps, is more of the same, though somewhat more uncompromising.

A group of four amateur actors form a company called ‘Alps’ who offer their services to bereaved families and individuals, playing out the roles of deceased friends and relatives to help them grieve. The roles taken on include a teenage girlfriend, a Canadian lover of a middle-aged man and the daughter of a bookish elderly gentleman.  Even if you know this conceit beforehand, it is hard to follow the film at times, as the characters shift from role to role, including their own ‘real-life’ ones – one of the ‘actors’ is a paramedic and the other a nurse – and the plot lurches into one narrative aporia after another. That said, the performative aspect of Alps is interesting, with its absurd set-ups recalling the soberly deranged cinema of the Portuguese directors Pedro Costa, João Pedro Rodrigues and Miguel Gomes.

You are tempted at times to read more into the film than might be there – is it a parable for a crisis-stricken Greece? Does the accumulation of references to Hollywood actors and American singers – with not a single Greek cited – reflect the current economic emasculation of the Greek nation? These may or may not be pertinent but Alps is a sufficiently elastic narrative to give rise to such ruminations. And sometime, trying to figure out what is going on on screen can be as liberating as it is frustrating. In many ways it is similar to Athina Rachel Tsangari’s more narratively robust Attenberg (2010) – a film that Lanthimos had a supporting role in (Tsangari is the producer of this film). Many people will loathe Alps and it does feel like a minor diversion but it is also pleasingly free-wheeling and for all its inscrutability, quite entertaining.

Young Bosnian director Aida Begićs first feature Snow was another Cannes prize-winner, picking up the Grand Jury prize during Critics’ Week in 2008. It was a solid drama about a Muslim village whose menfolk have been obliterated by the war and which is now about to bought by a foreign company; after such a promising debut, Children of Sarajevo is particularly disappointing. Like its predecessor, the film tells the story of victims of the Bosnian War – this time, a twenty-something woman and her teenage brother, both left orphaned by the conflict. The older sister, Rahima, wears a headscarf though she doesn’t appear to be an especially devout Muslim – it is gradually revealed that it her embracing of religion is more a way of distancing herself from her junkie past and securing custody of her brother to keep him out of the orphanage. The brother, Nedim, is being bullied at school, and though he is well able to take care of himself, he does so inflicting costly damage on his bully’s iPhone.

Rahima, who works as a cook, is forced to replace the phone, as Nedim’s tormenter is none other than the son of a government minister, a philandering boor with some dodgy connections, who is a frequent diner in the upscale restaurant where Rahima works. This is where the film begins to go wrong. Though Begic’s portrayal of life in a Sarajevo tower block is finely detailed, with the ordinary poverty of low earners delineated in trips to the local convenience store, the chilliness of under-heated apartments and the hacking cough of the sibling’s middle-aged neighbour Selma, the film’s drama is woefully schematic and its characterisation crude.

All the figures of authority, be they Nedim’s school principal, the restaurant manageress, the social worker who assesses Rahima’s fitness to take care of Nedim or, the biggest cardboard ogre of the lot, the minister Melic (played by Velibor Topić, a regular face as a generic Balkan thug in English-language films such as Snatch), are un-nuanced villains. They are all people that have either profited from the war or managed to get out, drawing frequent recrimination from Rahima, whose wartime past is evoked in real footage shot during evacuation of civilians from their homes. It is a valid dialectic, and familiar from narratives with a post-war setting. It is also, not surprisingly, a familiar one in recent Bosnian films too, such as Ognjen Sviličić’s Armin (2007) and Jasmila Zbanić’s Grbavica (2006) and On the Path (2010). The problem is Begić’s narrative is far clunkier than either of those and you can far too easily see the joins. It begins to wear long before the end.