Friday, December 20, 2013

Films of the Year 2013

2013 turned out to be a good year for film, with a wide and varied range of excellent movies, from pretty much everywhere, covering the mainstream, art house and documentaries. Two things I found striking this year – many of the best films I saw were of the sort that are usually done so ineptly on screen, be it the historical drama of Heimat, the quirky comedy of Frances Ha or the 'fan' documentary of Fifi Howls from Happiness. I also noticed how long many of the films listed here are: five are three hours or longer while another few are not far off that. That comes as a surprise to someone who never tires of complaining that most films are too long and drag on inexorably. Length need not be a problem though if the director has a sufficient command of the pace and the material to keep the audience's interest.

The rules for inclusion, as ever, are: a French cinema release before the third week of December this year. Hence there are some films that will have appeared elsewhere in 2012 or have yet to; conversely some films are missing here that are in other lists, such as Nebraska, 12 Years a Slave and Like Father, Like Son. They may make an appearance in this same list in twelve months' time.

1. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke – China/Japan)
Jia Zhangke continues to be a man interested in just about every facet of Chinese society. A Touch of Sin has fallen foul of the Communist Party on account of the violence and social discontent it portrays so sparely. It is a compelling crime film, with brilliantly mounted set pieces and an almost documentary-style take on a China one rarely sees on screen. Jia also frames his four stories (and epilogue) in such a way that you want to see it again as soon as possible to see how it works and what you missed. In an exceptionally tough year at Cannes, A Touch of Sin came away with the screenplay prize. Many would argue it was the best film on show there.

Full review

2. Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland – UK)

Few British directors roll like Peter Strickland. After a low-budget debut filmed in Hungarian and Romanian, he came up with this ingenious film that is a homage to Italian giallo horror films from the 1970s, a comic account of British resistance to continental culture and a genuinely creepy Kafkaesque thriller. Toby Jones plays a mild-mannered Foley artist missioned to the shady Berberian Sound Studio in Rome to provide sound effects for a low-budget slasher film, in spite of being incapable of watching what is on screen. There are inevitable echoes of The Conversation and Blow Out but Berberian Sound Studio is very much its own film, as cerebral as it is hair-raising.

Full review

3. Blancanieves (Pablo Berger – Spain/France)

The silent film revival is unlikely to be an enduring phenomenon but Pablo Berger’s Snow White adaptation shows how silent cinema might be made in this day and age without recourse to gimmickry. Blancanieves is an inspired conflation of the famous fairy tale and another (‘Sleeping Beauty’) and Sevilleano bullfighting lore. It looks gorgeous too with beautiful high-contrast photography from Kiko de la Rica and Seville, a city too rarely seen on screen, looks resplendent. Far more than a pastiche or a homage, Berger’s film is a great literary adaptation.

Full review

4. Heimat: Chronicle of a Vision (Edgar Reitz – Germany/France)

You don’t have to have seen Edgar Reitz’s legendary TV series (I haven’t) to appreciate this prequel of sorts set in the Rhineland in the early 1840s. A four-hour black and white glimpse into rural poverty against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of German nationalism, this ‘other Heimat' is masterful historical cinema. It faithfully reproduces the period trappings yet integrates them into the physical drama, unlike many other such films. And as an unexpected bonus, there's a wonderful cameo from Werner Herzog as the great geographer Alexander von Humboldt.
Full review

5. Blue Is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche – France/Belgium/Spain)

Adbellatif Kechiche’s brilliant lesbian love story had barely won the Palme d’Or at Cannes when he was accused of mistreatment by his crew, manipulation by his leading ladies and inauthentic sex scenes by lesbians (one wonders what ‘authentic’ sex is and who sets the standard). The film - Kechiche’s fifth - will long outlive the petty controversies though. In the manner of his previous masterwork, La graine et le mulet, this adaptation of Julie Maroh’s comic book is a long and unflinching look at love in a way the movies rarely have the patience or heart to do. Adèle Exarchopolous and Léa Seydoux are fantastic in the two lead roles, however unpleasant the experience might have been. Blue Is the Warmest Colour will leave you as drained as the characters themselves but it’s exhilarating stuff.

Full review

6. It’s the Earth, not the Moon (Gonçalo Tocha – Portugal)

This three-hour documentary about life on Corvo, the smallest island in the Azores, is both a marvellous piece of anthropological filmmaking and also the most likeable film of the year. Gonçalo Tocha sprinkles his narrative with wry self-deprecating asides as his camera captures the everyday of a tiny community and he constructs as best he can a narrative history of this most westerly point of Europe. There is an air of Father Ted about it but only in an amiable way. Tocha, for all the justness of his detached observation, clearly loves the people he films and there is no condescension on display. Yet another film that shows the gently thoughtful Portuguese cinema to be sui generis.

Full review

7. In the Land of the Head Hunters (Edward S. Curtis – USA)

A re-released film from 1914 gets a spot on this list because it didn’t benefit from a general release back then (though it has hardly been widely seen this time round either). Edward S. Curtis, famous for his photographs of North American Indians, made this, his only feature, in collaboration with the warlike Kwakwaka’wakw tribe of British Columbia. As well as being a priceless historical document, In the Land of the Head Hunters tells its tale of pursuit and revenge with gusto. It also has a bracingly modern air to it, with costumes and dances that the Western world has only recently started to catch up with.

Full review

8. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón – USA)
Cuarón's tight space drama was one of the most hyped films of the year and, for once, it lived up to the advance noise. The circumstances of the plot reduce things (and onscreen personnel) down to a bare minimum early on and not even the distractions of some corny dialogue and cursory backstory can lessen the impact of the film's sole concern: survival. Technically masterful and terrifying in an almost tactile way, Gravity is not the sort of film you get from Hollywood too often, but it makes you wish the studios would use the means at their disposal to make more films of such graceful simplicity as this.

Full review

9. Once I Entered a Garden (Avi Mograbi – Israel/Germany/France)
Avi Mograbi, who, for my money, made the best documentary of the past decade, ventures a more personal effort this time - a series of conversations with his Palestinian Arabic teacher, Ali Al-Azhari, interspersed with a number of outings to the sea and to Al-Azhari’s childhood home that he is now effectively barred from. There are also Sebaldian episodes where actress Hiam Abbass reads from the diaries of a relative of Mograbi’s written from his European exile. It’s part My Dinner with André, part Vladimir and Estragon, and is effortlessly watchable. Mograbi is a free-wheeling formalist who once again shows that the best stories often lie outside of fiction.

Full review

10. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie – France)

Heretofore little known outside of France, Alain Guiraudie was one of the revelations of Cannes this year with his fifth feature. A tense thriller set entirely on a gay-cruising lakeside spot, Stranger by the Lake is both a theoretical essay on group codes and conventions as well as an icy interrogation of the risks gay men run. The frustrated hero Franck is drawn to a handsome stranger, only to witness the latter kill another bather late one evening. An initially unassuming chamber piece, it grows into something monstrous and devilishly smart.

Full review

11. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg – USA)

You'd be forgiven for not expecting much from Spielberg's Lincoln but Tony Kushner's screenplay helps steer Spielberg away from worthiness and the film is true to the historical moment. There is little complacency about the historical gains made by the abolition of slavery, even though due respect is paid. Buoyed by stirring performances, most notably Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader, Lincoln is a fine political film, anchored by a healthy dose of pragmatism. One of Spielberg's finest.

Full review

12. Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Hong Sang-soo – South Korea)

The prolific Korean Hong Sang-soo offers up a film that retreads his familiar concerns: the capacity of sad-sack men for petty betrayal and the gentle alienation of youth. Haewon is a young student being finally abandoned by a mother that rarely cared for her. Her lover, one of her teachers, is feckless and unresponsive and Haewon has burned her bridges with her friends after a failed relationship. It all sounds underwhelming but, like Éric Rohmer, the filmmaker Hong most resembles, there is a lot going on in this languid comedy of manners.

Full review

13. Story of my Death (Albert Serra – Spain/France)

Albert Serra is the standard-bearer for challenging European cinema and his lo-fi digital explorations of figures of fiction and history will seem like watching paint dry to some. Story of My Death yokes together the biographies of Casanova and Dracula for what is a highly unconventional historical dialogue. Despite being made with few resources, the film is luminous like a grand old tableau. It imparts a clear sense of importance while striking a note of playful levity throughout. It's difficult cinema but sometimes the difficult can be beautiful and charming too.

Full review

14. In the Fog (Sergei Loznitsa – Germany/Netherlands/Belarus/Russia/Latvia)

After his highly regarded feature debut My Joy, Loznitsa attempts an ambitious adaptation of Belarusian author Vasil’ Bykaw's novel In the Fog. The book may not be well known in the West but it's a landmark 20th-century text in the Russian-speaking world. A tale of a railwayman's despair at being accused of collaboration with the Nazis during the war and the two Soviet soldiers charged with carrying out his execution, it is both intensely bleak and atmospheric. Loznitsa captures the existential terror of both the period and the source novel, and Oleg Mutu, cinematographer of the New Romanian Cinema makes it all shimmer on screen.

Full review

15. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel – USA)

Castaing-Taylor, a Harvard anthropologist and director of the 2009 film Sweetgrass and Paravel, who herself made the New York documentary Chop Shop, team up for this mesmerising film about New Bedford fishermen. The film is mostly shot at night so the images take on an uncanny abstraction as birds wheel around the vessel and tiny cameras bob about amid the captured fish, making it a film as much about the captured prey as it about the men that catch them. It's fashionable these days to call such a film a 'tone poem' but Leviathan is more visceral than simply photogenic. A film without any dialogue that roars.

Full review

16. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach – USA)

Credit must go to Noah Baumbach for making the sort of film that US filmmakers give up on as soon as they get a foothold in Sundance, but it is Greta Gerwig who owns Frances Ha. She has it all locked down. Her Frances is a shambling Manhattan Candide, determined to succeed as a dancer even as her maladroitness seems to distance her further and further from the big break. This is a touching tale of thwarted ambition that shows a New York that is all but excluded to anyone without a trust fund behind them. It's all the better for being very funny. One of the best comedies of recent years and if there is any justice, Gerwig will win an Oscar (even if I know, deep down, she won't).

Full review

17. The Last of the Unjust (Claude Lanzmann – France/Austria)
Lanzmann revisits Shoah and makes a long film with some of the material he couldn't fit in the original film. The Last of the Unjust is based on interviews he made with Benjamin Murmelstein, former Chief Rabbi of Vienna and head of the Judenrat in Theresienstadt under the Nazis. It is in the same mould as Shoah though lacks that film's insistent edge – Lanzmann is almost forty years older now and has easier access to a budget than he did back then, so there is less improvisation. It is a scholarly yet thoroughly cinematic film that offers a firm apologia for a man scorned by international jewry.

Full review

18. Clip (Maja Miloš – Serbia)

It's tricky making a shocking film about contemporary teenagers while maintaing a clear sympathy for the people you are portraying but 29-year-old Maja Miloš pulls it off. Clip is a warts-and-all portrayal of a working-class Serbian teenager and her hedonistic, selfy-obsessed friends. There's very little left to the imagination in it and, were it made in English, you can be guaranteed it would have roused more moral outrage than it has. Miloš's film can be questionably amoral at times but its characters' motivations, however venal they might be, are perfectly believable. Miloš knocks the puerile exploitationism of Larry Clark into a cocked hat.

Full review

19. Shokuzai (Kiyoshi Kurosawa – Japan)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa ended a few years of production nightmares with this TV mini-series that got a cinema release outside of Japan. Shokuzai (meaning 'penance') centres on four former schoolfriends who witnessed the murder of a classmate when they were only seven-years-old and the child's mother who never forgives them for their inability to help police find the killer. Each of the girls brings a weighty burden with them into adulthood, and each is tracked down by the obsessive mother Asako (Kyôko Koizumi). Shokuzai is a horror film without any supernatural presence and a pyschological thriller without any clear adversary. Though adapted from a pulpy bestseller, Kurosawa's film is one of the most sophisticated onscreen treatments of guilt and repentance.

Full review

20. Fifi Howls from Happiness (Mitra Farahani – USA/France/Iran)

Young Iranian director Mitra Farahani tracks down elderly (and largely forgotten) Iranian artist Bahman Mohasses to his Rome hotel suite and gets him to agree to a fly-on-the-wall documentary in return for securing him a commission. Fifi Howls from Happiness (named after one of Mohasses' paintings) is more than just a simple homage thanks to Mohasses' rebarbative nature and mordant sense of humour and also because of Farahani's skill at weaving narrative out of lived (and filmed) experience. A fine tribute to the painter, who died in 2010, during filming.

Full review

Also worth a look

Mundane History (Anocha Suwichakornpong - Thailand)

Home for the Weekend  (Hans Christian Schmid - Germany)

Gimme the Loot (Adam Leon - USA)

The German Doctor (Lucía Puenzo – Argentina/Spain/France/Norway)

Wadjda (Haifaa Al-Mansour - Saudi Arabia/Germany)

Here and There (Antonio Méndez Esparza — USA/Mexico)/Spain)

No (Pablo Larraín — Chile/USA/France)

5 Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat/Guy Davidi –  Palestine/Israel/France/Netherlands)

Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont - France)

The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai – Hong Kong/China)

What Richard Did (Lenny Abrahamson – Ireland)

The Lebanese Rocket Society (Joana Hadjithomas/Khalil Joreige – Lebanon/France/Qatar)

Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas – Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany)

The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino – Italy/France)

The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard – UK)

A Simple Life (Ann Hui – Hong Kong)

Meteora (Spiros Stathoulopoulos – Germany/Greece)

Grigris (Mahamet-Saleh Haroun – France/Chad)

Michael Kohlhaas (Arnaud des Pallières – France/Germany)

Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen – USA)

Omar (Hany Abu Al-Assad – Palestine)

Films many others loved but left me a bit underwhelmed

The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson – USA)

Mud (Jeff Nichols – USA)

A Hijacking (Tobias Lindholm – Denmark)

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer – Denmark/Norway/UK)

The Immigrant (James Gray – USA)

Bastards (Claire Denis – France)

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen – USA)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Touch of Sin – Jia Zhangke

A Touch of Sin (Tian Zhu Ding) (Jia Zhangke – China/Japan) 133 minutes

If one were to name the most important filmmaker alive today, you’d be hard pushed to look beyond Jia Zhangke. Few directors worldwide are so consistently brilliant and the handful that are rarely provide such an in-depth auscultation of their own society in their work as the 43-year-old Chinese does. Even Iranian directors such as Jafar Panahi and Mohamad Roussolof, both great filmmakers deprived of their freedom because of their work, lack the world-historical angle of Jia Zhangke’s films. Jia is, with China’s exponential growth and breakneck development, living in interesting times. And he has the field largely to himself – China, despite its size and increasing economic growth, has relatively few directors who have made an impact on an international scale. Other Sixth Generation directors such as Wang Bing, Lou Ye, Zhang Yuan, Quan’an Wang and Zou Peng have made a name for themselves on the festival circuit but remain relatively marginal. Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige’s obliquely political films of the 80s and 90s have given way to their own compromises with power. Jia may not be either ineffably mainstream – even in China – nor exceptionally dissident but his films are accessible to popular audiences and he is a chronicler of turbulent social change to rival Dickens, Balzac or Döblin. His work is also possessed of a startling beauty and narrative grace – in a visual, emotional and intellectual sense, his films are big hitters. There is probably no filmmaker alive as complete.

His latest film A Touch of Sin has seen him push the envelope a bit further, portraying violence, corruption, delinquency and discontent in contemporary China, of the sort that usually needs to be expressed in more sublimated ways. The official Chinese reaction has been one of disapproval though the Communist Party has sought not to ban the film but to immobilise it, instructing media not to report on it. Even such a relatively sophisticated means of censure is destined to fail with word of mouth, digital reproduction and the film’s international renown sufficient to earn it a notoriety in the PRC.

The film begins with two briefly interlocking incidents in Jia’s native Shanxi province that will later branch off into two strands of narrative among the four separate episodes, each of which Jia drew from real-life incidents. A bored-looking middle-aged man sits astride a motorcycle beside an overturned lorryload of tomatoes. Not far away, a younger man on another motorcycle is cornered by three young opportunistic hoodlums. The first man, Dahai (Jiang Wu), has just returned to his home village and is appalled at how the chief of the village – a former classmate of his – has enriched himself by selling the local mine off for privatisation. Dahai threatens to denounce the chief to authorities in Beijing but is roughed up by hoodlums and then offered wads of cash to remain silent. The second, San Zhou (Wang Baoqiang) is a shady drifter, who lives far from his young family but who cares enough for them to send them substantial amounts of money and to visit them in Chongqing for Chinese New Year. Wang looks like a menacing version of Joseph Gordon Levitt and he is the malignant force in the film, telling his wife that he is summoning up devils rather than gods when he waves three cigarettes, incense-style, around their house.

Both Dahai and San Zhou are malcontents, each in their own way. The heroine of the third episode meanwhile, Yu Xiao (Jia's wife Zhao Tao) is simply unhappy, a hostess in a massage parlour who is taken advantage of by the married man she has been having a long-time affair with. One day, she decides to say no, refusing to join him on a business trip to Guangdong, and things happen. The fourth and final episode centres on Hui Xiao (Luo Lanshan), a young man from Hunan. After causing the injury of a colleague in an industrial accident and being forced to work off the man’s loss of earnings, he bunks off down the country to Dongguan, where he gets a job in a luxury resort and falls in love with one of the prostitutes working there.

All four episodes are elliptical and self-contained with only brief links to each other. The motivations of each character are sometimes vague and the instances of violence – there is a different one in each episode – are mounted with cool, forensic distance, which makes them all the more unsettling when they happen. A Touch of Sin, like Jia’s previous films, most notably Still Life and 24 City, has an amorphous ontological quality to it. Its scenes and characters shift and reshape themselves in the memory long after the film ends. It also closes with a short, oblique epilogue which has a blackly comic echo of David Lynch or Michael Haneke. The Chinese title is idiomatic and means ‘Divine Destiny’, and is referenced in passing in each of the four episodes, which suggests the episodes are driven by fate rather than social forces; this too, you suspect, is playfulness on Jia’s part as there are too many veiled allusions to contemporary China – the beating meted out to Dahai is very similar to the Chinese police's beating of Ai Weiwei in 2009, a local bigwig and his wife make you think of Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai, another couple is killed in Chongqing – the city Bo ran till he was toppled – while a Taiwanese-owned factory in the fourth episode is an explicit reference to Foxxconn.

I’m not sure if A Touch of Sin is Jia’s masterpiece or whether he is simply playing formal games with his audience but it is a compelling film that leaves you continually looking for clues (there are also references to animal signs of the Chinese zodiac throughout) and wondering if what you have seen has deeper underlying meanings or is simply an enactment of a society on the brink of cracking. It spans the sort of Chinese human interest stories that populate the sidebars of online news sites and also the industrial discontent that is rather less reported. A Touch of Sin is an intriguing film that will leave you wanting to watch it again to get more from it. The fact that it has clearly bothered China’s rulers makes it all the more valuable a work.

The Golden Dream – Diego Quemada-Diez

The Golden Dream (La jaula de oro) (Diego Quemada-Diez – Guatemala/Spain/Mexico) 102 minutes

It is a strange coincidence that two wildly different films about immigration/emigration were released this year with roughly the same title. There was the sunny and very light French-Portuguese film La cage d’orée (‘The Gilded Cage’) and now there is Spanish director Diego Quemada-Diez’s significantly darker Mexican film La jaula de oro (‘The Golden Cage’, though it has been retitled The Golden Dream for English-speaking markets). Quemada-Diez’s film covers similar ground to Cary Fukunaga’s Sin nombre (2009), which followed the efforts of Honduran migrants to reach the US and Victor Nava’ El Norte, where the hopeful emigrants were Guatemalan. The Golden Dream’s teenage heroes also hail from Guatemala though this time they are fleeing poverty rather than war and political repression. Juan (Brandon Lopez), a cynical and moody sixteen-year-old, is joined by his friends Samuel (Carlos Chajon) and Sara (Karen Martinez) in their journey across the border into Mexico and then north to California. Sara cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy, for reasons that become apparent later in the film.

When Mexican police arrest and deport them, Samuel gives up and decides to return home. They have now been joined by a Maya Indian, Chauk (Rodolfo Dominguez), who speaks no Spanish and who is the butt of Juan’s racial bullying. Sara sticks up for the resilient and selfless Chauk and Juan grudgingly agrees to let him tag along.

The Golden Dream is familiar enough stuff but it is lifted above the run-of-the-mill humanist drama by the soare sobriety of Quemada-Diez’s style. He manages to keep sentimentalism at bay for the most part, with one lapse late on. Though we see some acts of solidarity and kindness from ordinary people towards the masses of strangers hitching a ride north on the roofs of freight trains, Quemada-Diez knows that the decks are stacked firmly against the migrants. Since the narco-isation of Mexican society in the 1980s, the journey has become even more precarious than before with more than just social adversity and natural conditions to surmount. The cartels prey on the migrants, whom they see as expendable, to carry out dangerous undesirable work and there are lesser venal ‘entrepreneurs’ operating in the drug-lords’ slipstream. Quemada-Diez’s masterstroke is to square the demands of the drama with credible shocks emanating from the simplest situations. The Golden Dream is of a genre that affords little wriggle room for thematic or formal innovation but Quemada-Diez is attuned to both the often super-human determination of the Wretched of the Earth to reach the developed world, no matter the risks, and to the sorrow that lies forever in the hearts of even those who make it safely in the end. A fine debut from a very promising director.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Counsellor – Ridley Scott

The Counsellor (Ridley Scott – USA/UK)  117 minutes

Depending on who you are, The Counsellor’s ultimate selling point is either its five big-name stars, rather annoyingly billed surname-only on trailers and posters, its director, Ridley Scott, or it is Cormac McCarthy, contributing his first motion picture screenplay at the age of 80 (his only previous screenwriting effort was a 1976 teleplay for PBS). Though McCarthy is reportedly working on three new novels, he has published nothing since 2005’s The Road and his fans will most likely scramble to consume anything that flows from his pen at this point. The Counsellor deals with the Mexican cartels’ terrifying rise to prominence in the past two decades, something which has given McCarthy a new form of violence to grapple with in his fiction, as in No Country for Old Men. The Coen Brothers’ adaptation of that book was for the most part successful and the experience seems to have given McCarthy a taste for the big screen.

The Counsellor of the title is a handsome upwardly-mobile El Paso lawyer played by Michael Fassbender (a man who seems to be the go-to man to incarnate onscreen luxury these days) referred to only as ‘Counsellor’ throughout. He is talked into going in on a drug deal by Reiner, a restaurateur client of his (Javier Bardem) and a seemingly more worldly middleman Westrea (Brad Pitt). The Counsellor seems to not really understand what he is getting himself in for, which in turn suggests he doesn’t really follow the news. Early on in the film, when all is still sweetness and light, he proposes to his girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), having gone to Amsterdam to buy an expensive rock off a diamond dealer (Bruno Ganz).

Things begin to go awry when a client of Counsellor’s, whom he has taken on only because the man’s mother – another client – requested it, and who is working for the cartel, is ambushed and killed. The cartel’s default reaction is a Dantean punishment for all involved, all of which has been foretold in allusions in conversation by Reiner and Westrea to the cartel’s preferred methods of exaction.

The horrific sun-drenched Gothic mode is perfect material for McCarthy but his screenplay is the first place where the film goes wrong. He favours long wordy dialogue, which might be evocative on the page but is clunky and disorienting in the mouths of actors. It certainly doesn’t help either that characters that appear not to be non-native English speakers, such as Reiner and a Mexican crime boss played by Rubén Blades, utter words such as ‘heretofore’ in a strong accent. A trimming of the dialogic fat would have produced a more robust screenplay without any loss in tone. Though the universes of this film and Roberto Bolaño’s mammoth novel 2666 meet only tangentially, the Chilean writer, even in a 1000-page novel, is far more succinct and persuasive a portrayer of a hellish milieu than McCarthy is.

The characterisation is also slipshod – Reiner is a silly cliché of a coked-up high-liver, a refugee from early-80s Wonderland Avenue. The women are even worse (McCarthy has often been accused of showing little or no interest in female characters in his books). Penélope Cruz’s Laura is a ridiculous caricature of a Latina Catholic, a woman who frets about sinning while in bed. Cameron Diaz suffers the greatest indignity as Malkina, Reiner’s sexually voracious girlfriend/wealth manager. While casting Diaz as a trashy vamp is in one respect an inspired idea, her character’s whorish amorality is the fruit of some seriously inept writing. It also tries to graft a film noir trope onto a world that has little or nothing in common with the traditional noir modes and devices. It is like Becky Sharp popping up in a film about the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre. Several scenes involving her are also cringeworthy in the extreme, such as one where she tries to seduce the more homely Laura and another where she pulls her panties off and pleasures herself on the windscreen of Reiner’s sports car (as if this weren’t unsubtle enough, Reiner is narrating the whole thing in voiceover at the same time).

The performances are mostly askew, though the actors can hardly be blamed too much given the mangled grotesque they are expected to work with. Fassbender and Bardem, both far too good for this sort of nonsense, do their best but it is Pitt’s wisecracking, sarsaparilla wide boy Westrea that is the best turn in the film. He is the only one who manages to match the tone of his character and most the better scenes in the film involve him. The Counsellor also suffers by comparison to recent television drama. A previous Ridley Scott film, American Gangster, had already looked creaky and semi-articulate next to The Wire when it came out in 2008. His latest effort seems like a pointless after-thought in the wake of Breaking Bad, which, even in its more comic moments, conveyed far more forcefully the menace of the cartels.  Scott has long been turning out films far below the level of early work, but the recent rise of TV drama has made him, like much else in Hollywood drama, look particularly irrelevant. Intelligent adult audiences are catered to far more assiduously by TV these days than by Hollywood. Ridley Scott has an irremediably passé air about him, he is VHS times print media times Jerry Bruckheimer. When Dean Norris (Hank from Breaking Bad) pops up at one point as a buyer for the cartel shipment, it feels like Scott is having a masochistically cruel pop at his own underwhelming work.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

It’s the Earth, not the Moon – Gonçalo Tocha

It’s the Earth, not the Moon (É na Terra, não é na Lua) (Gonçalo Tocha – Portugal) 185 minutes

Gonçalo Tocha and his sound engineer Didio Pestana arrive in Corvo, the smallest island of the Azores, 6 km by 4, population 440, with the intention of filming ‘everything we can, we will try to be everywhere at the same time and not miss a thing…we will try to meet everyone, to film every face, every service, every house, every street, every workplace, every corner of the island, every tree, every rock, every bird.’ The French sailor who takes them to the island says ‘the Azores are crazy and on Corvo, they’re even crazier’ (someone else says during the film that other Azoreans consider Corvo to be backward), but there is little evidence of any egregious eccentricity. If anything, Tocha’s film presents the island as such an ordinary society cast in extraordinary surroundings that at times you begin to question his motivation for making a documentary in such minute detail. We should be glad he did as It’s the Earth, not the Moon is one of the finest observational documentaries in recent years, an absorbing portrait of everyday life. Its punishing length and austere style (there are no captions and few recourses to voiceover) has led some to call it a ‘micro-epic’; there will be some for whom it is the hardest of films to watch, others will find it the easiest.

Tocha eschews anything that might give a noticeable timeline to proceedings and it is not always obvious the filming takes place over several visits over the course of a few years from 2007 to 2011. The film’s 14 chapters are interspersed with scenes of an elderly islander Inês Inêz knitting Tocha an old-fashioned whaler’s bonnet. This is one of several instances of manual labour documented in the film – and one that Inêz regrets is about to die out as the younger generation have no interest in it – others include fishing, slaughtering pigs, cattle-herding, Inêz’s husband crafting wooden bolt locks. Some of these crafts are more or less obsolete, now being processed on an industrial scale. It’s a wry avowal of artifice that carries (possibly unintentional) echoes of Robert Flaherty reintroducing the defunct basking-shark fishing to the Aran Islands to include in Man of Aran.

It’s the Earth, not the Moon has this wryness throughout. Tocha is almost always off-screen but is regularly addressed by the islanders, and his presence informs the action. The lightness of tone reminds you of Miguel Gomes’ wonderful Our Beloved Month of August. We meet members of a theatre troupe set up by Americans that has for some reason stopped off in Corvo, a German music teacher who wanted to get as far from home as possible without leaving Europe, the Portuguese Monarchist Party – marginal nationwide but a local force on Corvo – and, finally, a group of British birdwatchers. Tocha quickly gives up on his encyclopaedic intent but there is still an obsessive attention to the details of life on this tiny island. It is as if Tocha is providing his own canon for Corvo, which has little or no written documentation existing from its five centuries of human habitation. Until the last thirty years, the island was cut off even from other islands in the archipelago and it was only the arrival of an airstrip in 1983 that opened it up to the outside world. One of the few documents Tocha finds is shown him by a local archivist – a report from the Lisbon press in the early 1970s, which carried the headline ‘It’s the Earth, not the Moon’. It’s a suitably oblique title for a film that is gently exhaustive and which makes a small remote community a subject of the greatest importance. If Tocha’s film were a person, you would go out of your way to become its friend. A brilliant, mesmerising and lovingly warm film.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Captain Phillips – Paul Greengrass

Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass – USA) 134 minutes

‘No Al Qaeda’, say the Somali pirates in Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips; their intentions are purely ‘business’-related. Greengrass and his screenwriter are similarly eager for his film not to be mistaken for a Manichean neo-con blockbuster. We see the pirates – impecunious fishermen all – gather on the beach early in the film to await selection for the next raid. Their grievances are made clear throughout and the titular Captain Richard Phillips mumbles at one point while in their captivity that ‘surely there can be more for them to do than piracy or fishing’. It’s a little like ‘why can’t we all just get along’ crossed with ‘let them eat cake’. Greengrass has, along with Steven Soderbergh and others, pioneered the conscientious international thriller, a genre that sprouted in the early days of the Bush administration, as American liberals scrambled to put as much daylight as possible between themselves and their internationally unpopular president. With films like Syriana and Greengrass’ United 93, it became possible for fans of high-octane action films to get their adrenaline rush while retaining a pious sense of their righteousness à la différence de the rapacious warmonger heading their country.

Captain Phillips is based on the memoir of the captain of the MV Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship that was hijacked in international waters on its way from Oman to Mombasa in 2009. It was the first US ship to be taken in over two centuries – it is not surprising then that the Somali pirates led by ‘Bag of Bones’ Muse (Barkhad Abdi) are so excited at hitting the jackpot in bringing such a behemoth to heel. This film comes soon after Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking, a film it is pointless to compare this one to as the circumstances of each hijacking were so clearly different to one another (though, not, as lazy critics might point out, because Lindholm’s approach is more ‘art house’ or ‘European’ – his film is firmly in the Hollywood mould but without the military hardware to fall back upon). It has to be said though that Captain Phillips is a more efficient thriller, with Greengrass maintaining a swift even pace throughout and he neatly resolves the logistical conundrums that the hijacking’s timeline throws up. He is also as adept at filming quiet moments as he is the flashier, more elaborate set-pieces. The dénouement is every bit as riveting, in a different way, as Lindholm’s was, and a scene where a traumatised Hanks is treated by a military doctor is a masterpiece of observational drama. Moreover, in an age when many Hollywood films are catastrophically over-long, Captain Phillips justifies its two-and-a-quarter-hour running time and never flags.

The big problem with it however is it cannot escape the socio-political paradigm it clearly wants to have no part of. Though Greengrass and Ray go to lengths to show the Somalis’ side of the story,  using ample amounts of Somali dialogue and furnishing us with back story on the pirates’ reasons, the commercial constraints of the Hollywood blockbuster forbid too much empathy. It might be permissible to use a cast of unknowns (another familiar Greengrass practice) but there is no way you can reverse the perspective and show the event from the Somali point of view. If Greengrass wanted to make a truly sincere and radical film, he would have started it on the beaches of Somalia and not in the Vermont countryside, as Phillips makes his preparations to head off to the Persian Gulf. The film would follow the pirates as their skiff catches up with the Alabama and the Somalis board it, it would be with them as their plans unravel.

Such an approach wouldn’t mean a capitulation to lawlessness nor would it be affirming the justice of the pirates’ cause or even downplaying the US crew’s genuinely terrible experience. It would however upset the dynamics of the Western action film, where the technological infrastructure is so clearly weighed in favour of one side (it is only in improbably Die Hard-esque scenarios where this imbalance is temporarily redressed). It would be a genuinely unsettling and challenging experience for a Western audience to watch. Of course, Hollywood is never going to go down that route. Captain Phillips, after paying its dialectical respects to the predicament of the desperate Somalis, calls in the Navy Seals, just as Washington did in real life. There might not be any Al Qaeda in the film, as the hijackers like to point out, but Captain Phillips is ultimately as dutiful a paean to American military might as Zero Dark Thirty, however horrifying that might be to right-thinking liberals like Greengrass.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Immigrant – James Gray

The Immigrant (James Gray – USA) 120 minutes

James Gray’s first foray into period drama stays in New York – in a similar working-class milieu to his previous work, though this time set on Manhattan’s Lower West Side rather than the far reaches of Brooklyn. Marion Cotillard plays Ewa Cybulski, a young Silesian immigrant who is separated from her consumptive sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan) at Ellis Island in 1921, and listed for deportation on account of charges of prostitution on the passage over. She is saved by Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a suave yet shifty New Yorker, who bribes an immigration official to get her out and who offers her work and promises that she will ultimately be reunited with Magda.

It comes as little surprise to learn that the work is prostitution, which the devoutly Catholic Ewa – still professing her innocence of the accusations of low morals – tries to escape but she is thrown out by her aunt and uncle in Greenpoint when they learn of the rumours. She is ‘rescued’ once again by Bruno, who brings her back to Manhattan and keeps her indentured, even while a love-hate relationship develops between them. A more kindly-hearted sort, Orlando the Clown (Jeremy Renner), Bruno’s cousin, appears on the scene and tries to get Ewa to abscond with him.
The Immigrant has many fine qualities, not least Gray’s characteristically adept portrayal of a community and of relationships between people that are more often defined by what is unsaid than said. The New York of the period is wonderfully recreated, with musty sepia-washed photography from the Franco-Iranian Darius Khondji, a seriously underused cinematographer. Gray and Khondji sprinkle the film with nods to silent melodramas, such as a door surreptitiously closing after witnessing a murder in a hallway and a pursuit, filmed in wide angle, through Central Park and the city’s sewers. For all the film’s technical mastery though, it falls down in the quality of the acting and the writing.

Phoenix, a regular in Gray’s films, acquits himself gainfully, with a much more finely graded performance than the one he gave in The Master; in one scene with Ewa, he conveys powerfully the fearsome violence of the bully with a persecution complex. Cotillard, not the subtlest of actors at the best of times, does well enough for a time – convincingly mouthing a fair amount of Polish dialogue – until you begin to tire of her saying the word ‘monnay’ a little too often. Renner, however, is the main problem, and his character is as much the fault of Gray and co-writer Richard Menello as his own. For a start, Renner is just not convincing as a period character – he has too much of the hokey bonhomie of a 21st-century Rom Com love interest about him. He is also fed some unbelievably banal lines by Gray and Menello – his first words to Ewa on meeting her while performing at Ellis Island are ‘my God, you’re beautiful’ and when he next encounters her back in Manhattan, he advises her to tap Bruno for influence with Immigration before asking her in the next breath how she first met Bruno. There are structural problems with the script too as Orlando, a flimsy cipher, serves only as a vehicle for dramatic friction between Bruno and Ewa. I know the film’s a melodrama but it needn’t be quite so crudely mechanical.

Gray’s straining for realism is consequently questionable given how Renner is so jarring in his role. And why bother with so much Polish if one of those speaking (the Polish-American actress Dagmara Dominczyk) is similarly inclined to sound like she’s a college freshman when she switches to English? Prohibition is also oddly underplayed, given that, a year on from its enactment it would surely have been a feature of everyday life. It is especially frustrating as James Gray’s last two films We Own the Night and Two Lovers are among the finest American movies of recent times. He films New York with the same kind of verve and sensitivity as Martin Scorsese is no longer capable of mustering. The Immigrant might be a more creditable effort than Scorsese’s preposterous Gangs of New York but it is a major disappointment, one whose emotional potential is smothered far too frequently by sloppiness.

Monday, December 09, 2013

In the Land of the Head Hunters – Edward S. Curtis

In the Land of the Head Hunters (Edward S. Curtis – USA) 65 minutes

One of the best films of 2013 was released in 1914. Edward S. Curtis, well known for his documentary photographs of the dying traditions of the native peoples of North America, turned to motion pictures for this quasi-documentary set among the Kwakwaka’wakw of Vancouver Island. The film has, Curtis’ fame as a photographer notwithstanding, remained in obscurity since its brief initial release. A previous restoration in 1974 pieced together the reels of the original ‘photoplay’ and it has today been revamped further, with a techno-ambient score by Rodolphe Burger (of which more anon).

In the Land of the Head Hunters, made with real tribespeople and conceived in a slightly fictional register, is a simple enough film.  It’s divided into two parts, the first of which sees Motana (Stanley Hunt), the son of a Kwakwaka’wakw chief, proving his capability for leadership by undergoing a series of spiritual and martial disciplines. He woos a young woman, Naida (Margaret Frank), who is also coveted by a monstrous sorcerer. Having rebuffed and killed the sorcerer in the first part, Motana then has to face a furiously vengeful raid from the dead man’s brother in the film’s second half.

Curtis’ film, made while narrative cinema was still very much in its infancy and the old Native American cultures in the process of dying out, is a curiosity in that it gives centre stage to peoples who were to face genocide a second time in the twentieth century, through the ideological slanders of the Hollywood Western. In the Land of the Head Hunters was the first film – and one of the last, too – to be made with an entirely native cast. Curtis’ style may have been academic – relying almost entirely on static set-ups – but he had an unerring eye for the details and rhythms of Kwakwaka’wakw life. The elaborate costumes and various dances of the tribe – marital, military, ceremonial – are brilliantly captured on camera and, the greatest irony of all, look ineffably contemporary, so embedded in the mainstream of popular culture non-Western dance has become. For this reason, Burger’s score, however admirable in itself it might be, over-eggs the film somewhat. There was no doubt a temptation to harness the wonderful dancing onscreen with some spirited musical accompaniment but the effect is intrusive. You feel that it is all being underlined a bit too crudely. (Interestingly, the US release features a more conventional score from The Turning Point Ensemble, though there might be a case made for watching the film in pure silence, without any musical distraction.)

Though short enough (just over an hour), In the Land of the Head Hunters has a lot in it, and in addition to an inevitably tragic air indelibly associated with a vanishing, vanquished culture (Canadian anti-potlatch laws were if anything even more crippling than American anti-Indian legislation), you have the shock of the unexpected new. Curtis’ film is an echo from the past that looks remarkably fresh and dynamic. With our cleaving to technological teleology we tend to assume that the past must needs equal the primitive. This film, like many another from the era, shows that that is not necessarily the case. Robert Flaherty later adapted Curtis’ narrative mode for his anthropological films Nanook of the North, Man of Aran and Tabu but none of them have quite the same visceral charge as In the Land of the Head Hunters, which might well be the most authentic portrayal of Native American life ever committed to film.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Mercy & The German Doctor

Mercy (Gnade) (Matthias Glasner – Germany/Norway) 132 minutes

The German Doctor (Wakolda) (Lucia Puenzo – Argentina/France/Spain/Norway) 93 minutes

A German couple, Maria and Niels (Birgit Minichmayer and Jürgen Vogel) move with their teenage son Markus (Henry Stange) to a new adventure in the far north of Norway, to the Arctic town of Hammerfast, where round-the-clock darkness reigns for two months of the year (though the town is not, despite what the opening credits might say, the world’s northernmost). The move appears to proceed with the sort of dovetailing smoothness only Germans are capable of: Niels takes on a job in the local gas refinery and Maria as a nurse in the hospital’s terminal unit. Markus, like his mother, picks up the language quickly and settles in well at school. Niels even manages to farm a bit on the side, though it involves little more than throwing a bale of hay to his sheep every evening, which suggests a particularly urban conception of husbandry.

Despite the lack of sunlight, it is very much a northern idyll, couched in cosy wooden homes, with breathtaking views from seemingly every window. Niels introduces the first threat to that pleasant state of affairs by embarking on an adulterous relationship with a female colleague. Markus starts joining in the bullying of an unpopular classmate. Maria meanwhile, returning from working a double shift one night (or morning, or afternoon? It’s hard to tell), knocks someone or something over and flees the scene. When it later emerges it was a drunken teenage girl, who then died of exposure and who was a daughter of a man in the same church choir as Maria, the family is faced with a dilemma that could tear them apart.

Glasner and Vogel have previously collaborated on a number of films, most notably the 2006 The Free Will, a terrifying portrait of a recidivist violent rapist, played by Vogel. Mercy has a similarly theological title but it is a much more soothing, conventional Euro art-house film. The film is initially promising but loses its way soon after Maria’s hit-and-run, which, bafflingly, causes little intrigue or outrage in a small remote town. Screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson also seems to be flailing about in the dark with Niels’ affair with the clingy Linda (Ane Dahl Torp), which is purely vehicular and which is at best unconvincing, at worst casually misogynistic. At one time the affair looks like it might land the family in the shit but it is soon resolved in a perfunctory fashion. The relative sobriety we might have expected from the film early on is also dissipated as it moves towards its conclusion, with one particularly mawkish scene mounted during choir practice in the church, replete with diegetic melodramatic chorals. Mercy is a handsome, if unchallenging, film that presses all the obvious buttons but which helps itself to whatever grace it has, rather than gainfully earning it.


Lucia Puenzo's The German Family begins with an Argentine family, setting off across the Pampas in 1961 to travel to the resort hotel in Bariloche they run during the winter season. They encounter a stranger, who asks them if he can accompany them along the perilous route. He, Helmut Gregor (Àlex Brendemühl), is German and the mother of the family Eva (Natalia Oreira) is also of German stock and speaks the language. The family’s children, Tomas (Alan Daicz) and Lilith (Florencia Bado), whose adult self narrates, are about to start attending the very same German school in the Andean city that Eva herself went to. Gregor, who is a doctor, is also going that way and has contacts among Bariloche’s German community. He also takes an interest in twelve-year-old Lilith, who suffers from stunted growth and who has the physique of an eight-year-old; the good doctor offers to try new medication on her to accelerate her growth.

The family acquiesce, though father Enzo (Diego Peretti), less enamoured of things German than his wife, is wary. He has good reason to be, as the mild-mannered Doktor Gregor is none other than the notorious Josef Mengele, of the Nazi death camps. This appears to be an open secret among Bariloche’s Germans, who once enthusiastically flew the swastika during the war and now do their best to protect Mengele from prying eyes. Those eyes come in the form of Nora Eldoc (Elena Roger), a pretty young German-speaker who takes on an archivist position at the school but who is in reality a Mossad agent. She tries to get her superiors in Tel Aviv to close in on the fugitive but they are prioritising Eichmann and don’t want to blow the cover for that operation.

Meanwhile, Lilith, who appears to be developing a crush on the kindly doctor, also develops alarming symptoms that may be related to her experimental treatment, which is minutely documented in Gregor’s Leonardo-esque notebooks, the macabre content masked by cursive beauty. Puenzo, who adapted the film from her own novel, is an astute observer of the pains of medical dysfunction and the way families protect their children (an earlier film, XXY, sensitively portrayed a hermaphodite’s passage into puberty). She also adeptly engineers a tense thriller in a very low-key setting and has a striking visual sensibility - Enzo is an artisan dollmaker whom Mengele offers to finance for mass production and a subsequent visit to a doll factory provides a creepy echo, both of Mengele’s anatomical obsessions and the mass carnage of the death camps. The German Doctor is a surprisingly resonant film that might easily have been standard TV-movie fodder. It stands a good chance of getting a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination and would likely be one of the better films in the running.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Venus in Fur - Roman Polanski

Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure) (Roman Polanski ­– France/Poland) 96 minutes

When discussing Roman Polanski one seems almost morally beholden to mention the rape conviction he fled in 1976; with his new film, an adaptation of David Ives’ Broadway play Venus in Fur, Polanski makes it easy for you by tackling his own renown for sexual predation head-on. The film, like the source text, features just two characters, a theatre director auditioning actresses for the lead of his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s bondage classic Venus in Furs, and the brassy, seemingly empty-headed actress who buttonholes him into giving her a try. Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner plays the role of the gum-chewing, sharp-tongued Vanda (who is looking to play Wanda von Dunayev), while Mathieu Amalric is Thomas, the harried playwright-cum-director. Amalric looks like an only slightly more frazzled version of a young Polanski and the knowledge that his Jewish mother hailed from the same Polish village as the director makes you wonder if there might even be a hidden family link. In any case, you wonder why Polanski initially overlooked Amalric in favour of the much less frantic Louis Garrel, whose participation was curtailed only by a delay in production.

So close to Polanski’s own character and experience this film appears to speak, it is easy to forget it is actually based on a previously staged play. Vanda appears late, drenched by a Paris storm, at the theatre where Thomas, wearied by a succession of hopeless hopefuls, is wrapping up and about to leave. He is having none of her protestations, imagining this uncouth, mouthy suburban woman to be of the same stamp as those he has summarily dismissed. The opening exchanges are generic sitcom stuff, with Vanda an incarnation of Janice from Friends or Jennifer Tilly’s Olive Neal in Bullets over Broadway. When Vanda finally persuades Thomas to let her have her turn, she climbs into a tent-like Victorian frock and her delivery of the lines he has written is a revelation. She also shows insights into von Sacher-Masoch’s novel that make Thomas wonder if her vulgar comportment is just a front. Soon however, it is Vanda who is directing Thomas, tormenting and cajoling him in equal measure. When Thomas starts re-enacting roles from Polanski’s past filmography, including one particularly famous one from The Tenant, the film is squarely a commentary about Polanski and his critics.

It is an unusually revealing mise en abîme for a director, even if many of his detractors will simply dismiss it as self-serving. Polanski has spoken of his eternal regret for his rape of Samantha Geimer but has rarely addressed the matter explicitly. Recently he has grumbled in the French media about American ‘puritanism’ restricting filmmakers in the US – preaching to the choir in France, where the media has such a despairingly one-dimensional view of American mores. It’s an oblique way of protesting about his treatment (which, given the unusually privileged protection he has enjoyed as a fugitive from justice, would be more than a little rich). Venus in Fur is, moreover, Polanski’s first film in French, even though he has worked and lived in France since skipping bail almost three decades ago. Despite the theatrical theme and origin, it is far less obviously stagebound than his last film Carnage, also based on a play, by Yasmina Reza. While it can hardly be considered one of the better films of the year, much less a major film in its director’s oeuvre, Venus in Fur is an interesting one that provides an insight into the thinking (however self-righteous) of a director who, his protestations notwithstanding, might be coming round to the idea that the opprobrium he faces is not entirely unwarranted.