Thursday, January 22, 2015

Aruitemo aruitemo (Still Walking)

Taking place over one hot summer’s day as a family reunion of three generations leisurely unfolds through eating, chatting and taking a stroll, nothing very striking actually takes place in Still Walking, none of the characters is especially out of the ordinary, much food is prepared. This is well-worn territory, both in Japan and abroad, but Koreeda's film is distinguished by the skillful and natural way in which relationships, resentments, and regrets are revealed, gradually and gently.

The life of the household is grandmother Toshiko, cheerful and bustling; her husband Kyouhei is unfriendly and brusque, preferring to spend much of the day sitting in his consulting room. It is soon apparent, however, that his rude behaviour stems primarily from shyness and malingering disappointment at having had to retire from the doctoring job that was his whole life. He also has an extremely uneasy relationship with his second-eldest son Ryota; the reason they are all present on this day, it turns out, is to commemorative the anniversary of the death of eldest son and heir Junpei, and time has increased the influence of his memory, of which the parents have made no attempt to let go, into an impossible yardstick to which Ryota feels he should not be demanded to measure up.

He in turn is struggling in his relationship with his adoptive son Atsushi – his new wife Yukari is a widow – but knows hardly where to begin; he does not demand respect in these relationships, but at the same time struggles to deserve it, even at 40 retaining some of the selfishness of childhood, a propensity to avoid responsibility, and a constant need to check his cell phone. Yukari meanwhile, behind a display of impeccable manners, perceives endless slights from her mother-in-law even beyond those belittlements unwittingly bestowed.

The grandparents disapprove of both their surviving off-spring’s marriages; the buffoonish husband of daughter Chinami and their noisy children are the main reasons the grandparents don’t want them to move back home; behind a sweet round exterior, Toshiko is revealed to have a store of hard-hearted feelings, even cruelty, stemming only in part from deep despair at the loss of her child. It is this same despair that seems also to bind the elderly couple together, not exactly in mutual loathing, but certainly with unfriendliness, abetted as much by Toshiko’s gentle but constant contradiction of everyone around her, as by Kyouhei’s irritability.

As is often the case with this sort of picture, inspiration was drawn in part from Koreeda’s own family memories, and the veracity of the characters and relationships is impeccable, from the fundamental ties of family that produce unspoken understanding, to the fixed relationships and quirks that frustrate at every meeting. A tentative step forward is made in both father/son relationships by the following day, and a sweet ending perfectly illustrates the silly little things that can bond a son and his mother. And there the film indeed should have ended: a suddenly intrusive voice-over destroys the mood and a brief coda skips us forward several years to provide information we didn’t really require. But this is not enough to ruin what has come before, a well-judged and unsentimental family portrait of quiet beauty.

d/sc/ed Koreeda Hirokazu p Kato Yoshihiro, Kôno Satoshi, Taguchi Hijiri, Yasuda Masahiro ph Yamazaki Yutaka ad Isomi Toshihiro, Mitsumatsu Keiko m Gonchichi cast Abe Hiroshi, Natsukawa Yui, You, Takahashi Kazuya, Tanaka Shohei, Kiki Kirin, Harada Yoshio
(2008, Jap, 115m)
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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Die Stille vor Bach (The Silence Before Bach)

Pere Portabella’s filmic meditation comprises a series of various vignettes, united by the music of Bach. We hear it played on piano, church organ, harmonica, harpsichord and, in a nicely surreal reverse tracking shot, on a gradually-revealed subway car full of cellists. Portabella is not precious about the music: we first see it coming out of a player piano, and throughout the film it will play against the sounds of rain storm, telephone, and the domestic clatter of dropped dishes, and as a cacophony of selections performed simultaneously in a piano showroom.

Portabella is an old crony of Buñuel’s (he produced Viridiana), and the film is peppered with gently surreal touches, from playful cuts between episodes, via a frankly mysterious silent shot of an upright piano being dropped into the ocean, to a less successful sequence of a dressage horse “dancing” to the music. The film culminates with a series of abstractions, beautifully photographed, roaming in close-up through the serried ranks of organ pipes while the music is strangely distorted as though a ring modulator (perhaps the Bach of the future).

The photography (by Tomàs Pladevall) is especially lovely in the period domestic interiors – Bach introduces himself to the camera in the church of St Thomas in Leipzig where he was cantor, and takes us through a little lesson in harmony and tension, repeated with emphasis on sensitivity and delicacy at home as he instructs his son. This is echoed in the words of the fantastically enthusiastic butcher (discussing roasting meat, in fact) from whom famously, though perhaps apocryphally, Mendlessohn purchases endless cuts for the original pages of the St Matthew Passion in which they are wrapped. Elsewhere, we are in present day Leipzig where a tour guide dressed as Bach fills us in on a little history, or on a tourist boat on the Elba for some more background information. As though to emphasis the universality of the music, we are early on presented with a truck-driver discussing his love of chamber music in a motorway service station, later playing a lonely bassoon in his motel room, and finally arriving at a high-end music shop where the owner discusses the problems of getting a baby grand into a third-floor duplex.

The pleasure people get from the music of Bach is emphasised in part by the trouble they take to enjoy it. A piano tuner laboriously goes about his work at the start of the film, as though to prepare us, as well as the instrument; Bach’s ink-stained fingers carefully draw the required multitude of staves across a virgin page; his modern-day interpreter ritually dons his costume; and the player piano and the pipe organ display their complex workings with pride.

The other major strand is one of godliness, stemming from Bach’s own faith and convictions about the inspiration and purpose of his work. It is maintained (somewhat archly) that the music of Bach immeasurably enhances the glory God, without whom the latter would be “third-rate”, and the current cantor of St Thomas (the “present-day Bach”, as he is described, surely with a touch of wry Catalan ambivalence) relates that many of the non-believers in his choir ask to be baptised after having performed Bach’s music for some time – the silence before Bach is imagined as a dark, godless place.

The film itself opens in silence, the camera prowling around an empty white gallery space as though to declare not only that before the Bach there is nothing, but also that the space will soon be filled with “art” (confirmed by the European art-film staple of superfluous naked lady, taking a shower). It makes no bones about its unconventional structure and lack of narrative, which place it closer to poetry or meditation; theses are touched upon and universality suggested more than represented, but the main pleasure is to revel in the beauty of the music. As such, one must allow the film to sweep one along or not and, with such glorious sounds on display, who can resist?

d/p Pere Portabella sc Pere Portabella, Xavier Albertí, Carles Santos ph Tomàs Pladevall ad Quim Roy m J.S. Bach cast Christian Atanasiu, Féodor Atkine, Christian Brembeck, Àlex Brendemühl, Georgina Cardona, Lucien Dekoster, Beatriz Ferrer-Salat
(2007, Sp, 102m)
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Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

Currently fêted – more or less with reason – for Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s first feature, expanded from his graduation short at age 24, was shot in black and white in Boston and New York with a young cast and, at its best, a fine fifties-throwback feel. This is due in large part to an impressively-arranged jazzy orchestral score (by Justin Hurwitz, performed by the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra), and the fact that the film turns out to be an unexpected musical; rather like Rivette's Haut Bas Fragile, some way into the movie a character at a party starts to talk in rhyme before bursting into song and dance.

The story concerns Guy (Jason Palmer), a jazz trumpeter, and his girlfriend Madeline (Desiree Garcia) who have split up almost before the opening credits are done, and it meanders along until they meet again by chance at the end. Much of the film in between is fatally inconsequential and there’s nothing like character development, but the jazz club music is terrific (Palmer is a fine trumpeter), and a scene of subway flirtation creates a real erotic charge.

The songs themselves are less successful than the score and for some frustrating reason we rarely get to see the dancers’ feet, but the first number generates excitement from its tiny cramped setting, and there’s some nice group choreography in a diner. There are echoes (no more) of Cassavetes and the nouvelle vague in both form and content; the handheld camerawork is of the popular style, all jittery auto-focus, heavy-handed on the zoom, and over-reliant on close-up, but it does achieve some beautiful moments of light and delicate shades of monochrome (mostly involving the rather pretty Garcia, and despite also an annoyingly substandard digital picture). If not quite a success, definitely an admirably ambitious curio.

d/sc/ph Damien Chazelle p Damien Chazelle, Mihai Dinulescu ed Damien Chazelle, W.A.W. Parker m Justin Hurwitz cast Jason Palmer, Desiree Garcia, Sandha Khin, Karen Adelman, Anna Chazelle, Bernard Chazelle
(2009, USA, 82m, b/w)

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Eagles in the Chicken Coop

It’s hard to resist films about film-making, and it’s hard to resist a mockumentary in which the subjects’ first short is a message of protest to their parents against going to school, in which a fuzzy super8 figure leaps from a freeway bridge, entitled Why? And it’s hard to resist them when they grow up into struggling directors, not especially bright but whole-heartedly dedicated to making the best films they can. The problem is, they’ve unwittingly signed on to make a soft-core TV flick with a slick, bottom-feeding production company who spot great free production values in the beautiful and sprawling ranch to which they have access.

The boys aren’t trying to be particularly arty, just tell a story with truth and logic, but that’s neither what the company wants, nor paid for. It’s all very well put together, finely detailed (at least to start with), and often very funny, from the on-set improvisation just to get the damn thing made, to the increasingly ridiculous measures to which the company goes in order to steer the project back towards the sort of dreck they can understand (best memo: “no more shadows on naked bodies”, and Kathleen Quinlan’s steely producer is a hoot).

But, as appealing as the real-life team of Brent Florence and Kenny Luper are as their fictional counterparts Bill and Armondo, it’s really a one-joke movie, and as such wears inevitably thin. Nor does the crowning metaphor work as anything but a slightly mean and self-defeating joke: hard-working and well-intentioned as they are, they neither are, nor think of themselves, like the eagle in their next project, brought up to believe he’s a chicken until one day he finds he can soar. And it’s at least twenty minutes too long.

d/ed Brent Florence p James Bass, Bryan Laszlo Bihari sc Brent Florence, Kenny Luper ph Matthew W. Davis ad Matt Sanders m Todd Hannigan, Jørn Lavoll cast Brent Florence, Kenny Luper, Kathleen Quinlan, Chloe Snyder, Bruce Abbott, Cameron Bender, Alex Holdridge, Sara Simmonds
(2010, USA, 95m)
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Monday, November 10, 2014


After the horrible Une fille coupée en deux, it was mildly pleasing that Claude Chabrol’s final feature should be slightly better. Prolific new wave veteran that he is, it comes as a bit of a surprise to realize that he’s never before worked with Gérard Depardieu, but here they are together at last, with Depardieu as the eponymous police inspector, plucked from a Simenon novel, and the sort of detective who can’t resist a case even when on vacation (in Nîmes). It’s a murder mystery, with the charred body of someone who is who he shouldn’t be, a possible murderer in hiding, a sexy mistress, and a bitter widow. It’s all very bourgeois, of course, though Chabrol doesn’t dish out his usual skewering. Instead, he’s more interested in setting up a series of doublings and pairings, and in the fraught relationship between Bellamy and his half-brother (Clovis Cornillac, with apparently only one expression, of disgust at himself and the world and, distractingly, the latest Astérix to Depardieu’s Obelix). But the best thing about the film is the easy, intimate depiction of Bellamy’s marriage. Marie Bunel is note-perfect as his wife, smart and sexy, and Bellamy cannot keep his hands off her as they discuss the case in bed or the bathroom (it’s a very French film in that way – Bellamy flirts with every pretty young thing he can and Vahina Giocante’s temptress is a two-dimensional pantiless fantasy).

Depardieu is alarmingly rotund these days and huffs and puffs his way upstairs, but with little affectation elsewhere; if anything he underplays too much and comes off as the less charismatic of the pair, with a peek into his psyche being too little too late, and his dissertations on shadowy capitalist control and economic class differences coming off as mere window dressing.

This being Chabrol, it’s all mounted with great professionalism, taste and efficiency, but all the criss-crossing parallels of family and self-hatred are empty of significance. So too are Bellamy’s assertions that the world is a mess (it certainly isn’t for him). Jacques Gamblin is a fine nervy presence as the murderer-or-not, though partly hampered by an obtrusively false nose and beard; Rodolphe Pauly (Les amours d’Astrée et Céladon) gives an amusing turn late on as a venturesome young lawyer; but the film as a whole is lifeless. Chabrol’s cinema used to be back-handedly branded as anti-bourgeois entertainment by and for the bourgeoisie, but in this case you can drop the “anti”.

d Claude Chabrol p Patrick Godeau sc Odile Barski, Claude Chabrol ph Eduardo Serra ed Monique Fardoulis pd Françoise Benoît-Fresco m Matthieu Chabrol cast Gérard Depardieu, Clovis Cornillac, Jacques Gamblin, Marie Bunel, Vahina Giocante, Marie Matheron, Adrienne Pauly, Yves Verhoeven
(2009, Fr, 110m)
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Wednesday, October 8, 2014


After ten years of working on Blancanieves, writer-director Pablo Berger must have had mixed feelings about the appearance of The Artist (2011) the year before he was done. The latter film’s runaway success was undeniably a useful ice-breaker, however, for these are similar beasts, modern silent films made (largely) according to the conventions and constraints of the 1920s. Berger even gives Uggie a run for his money, with a perky rooster named Pepe.

Where The Artist’s use of this form is intimately tied to its content, however, Blancanieves uses the old-fashioned more simply to charm, and to help transport us to the era, for a tale that has nothing to do with cinema, or with sound. We are in 1920s Seville, for a retelling of the Snow White story. Carmencita is the daughter of a renowned bull-fighter, now the ward of a cruel stepmother. Left for dead in the forest, she is taken in by a band of six “enanitos toreros”, a ramshackle travelling band of dwarves, with whom she discovers her own talent for bullfighting. Engaged to perform a show at Seville’s grand arena, she once again encounters her stepmother, and the poisoned apple makes its appearance.

The story is so well-known that the appeal must be in its telling, and Berger is superficially successful. His strongest assets are the superb, shadow-daubed photography of Kiko de la Rica (Lucía y el sexo [2001]); lovely, lavish production design, clothes and jewelry; and the face of Maribel Verdú (Pan’s Labyrinth [2006], Y tu mamá También [2001]), who has a fine old time as the evil stepmother, her undeniable beauty gradually transformed into a cartoonish death’s head.

The vigorous score by Alfonso de Villalonga does most of the emotional heavy-lifting and is only occasionally over-bearing; elsewhere it is a lovely mixture of flamenco guitar, hand-clapping, and strings, strikingly augmented with what sounds very like a theremin. Berger and editor Franco go several times for some rapid and effective montage, in time to the music, and elsewhere go so far as to synch sound to image, first as a record plays, and later with fireworks. This is an issue in modern silent cinema throwbacks – to synch or not to synch? The convergence of sound and image tends to break the time-travel spell, since few scores for silent films remain with their original sheet music extant, many had none in the first place, and the convention has always largely been to fit the music to the film; the spell is broken when we feel that the image has been fitted to the music.

That is not much of a complaint. The sequences in question work nicely, even if the slightly disconcerting effect has no function in the film’s overall scheme (as opposed, say, to Hsiao-hsien Hou’s Three Times [2005]). Other stylistic flourishes include fun with the iris and repeated circles, from the grand plaza de toros, to the fateful apple, but these are mere echoes rather than metaphorical underpinning. Standards for the use of circles as visual symbols, in silent films or otherwise, were admittedly set high by Abel Gance’s La roue [1923], but Berger’s project has no aspirations to create a parallel, poetic meaning to its narrative. The form as a whole functions as high-class window-dressing.

The poetical and emotional elements embedded in the original fairytale – character, motivation, and magic – are further streamlined by alterations Berger has made to the story. Magic is out – there’s no mirror, and so shorn of the specific jealousy of vanity, the stepmother becomes even more of a caricature than Disney’s version (the film successfully runs with this, however, having Verdú fulsomely dominate her chauffeur with corset, top hat and riding crop). The decision to remove the element of magic is understandable; less so other changes. A certain amount of humanity is lost by having the chauffeur leave Blancanieves for dead, rather than let her go free in the forest; and the stepmother here does not bother to disguise herself, but brazenly hands the recently memory-recovered Blancanieves her apple, which is nonetheless received with not a jot of recognition.

There are also, for some reason, only six dwarves. It’s a distracting irony, even if non-verbal, when one of them recognizes this discrepancy in the large ‘7’ painted on their wagon – a film-maker’s eye-wink, and another spell-breaker, but less so than when the dwarves decide to name their new friend Blancanieves, “like in the story”. This irony is merely flippant, and allowing the characters to know the story that they are in fatally undermines its integrity, especially when that iconic apple is brought out (they’ve conveniently forgotten that part of the tale).

Only a couple such moments break the spell, and for the most part Berger conjures the sort of archetypal charm one hopes for in a fairy tale. Sofia Oria and Macarena García are both appealing as Carmens young and grown respectively (even if García is little more than a pair of wide eyes and pretty page boy haircut). The dwarves are an entertaining bunch, although the subplot of resentment Berger adds is no more than a device to justify one particular peril later on, and is otherwise unnecessary and undeveloped (likewise the illiterate Blancanieves signing herself into bondage with a machiavellian agent). Most damaging of all, however, he foregoes the classical closure of the fairytale form for an ending of melancholy ambiguity. One can accept the substitution of lovelorn dwarf for handsome prince, a stimulating disruption of the original story’s dynamic; some viewers will be repulsed rather than amused at the sight of lines of people kissing a corpse; many more will find the tacit endorsement of bull-fighting unforgivable. But to deny the audience any kind of ever after, happy or not, is a disappointment for all.

d/sc Pablo Berger p Pablo Berger, Ibon Cormenzana, Jérôme Vidal ph Kiko de la Rica ed Fernando Franco pd Alain Bainée m Alfonso de Villalonga cast Macarena García, Maribel Verdú, Sofia Oria, Daniel Giménez Cach, Ramón Barea, Inma Cuesta, Ángela Molina, Pere Ponce, Carmen Segarra, Pep Ferrer
(2012, Sp/Bel/Fr, 104m b/w)
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Le vendeur (The Salesman)

 A few years ago there was a gratifying trend for festivals, in and around LA at least, to focus a sidebar on cinema from Quebec, and I found myself developing quite a fondness. Without presuming to pigeonhole an entire region’s cultural output, one could recognise in Le Vendeur a quiet wit, straightforwardness and lack of illusions that seem characteristic.

Marcel Lévesque is in his late sixties, but still works at the car dealership where he has been the number one salesman every month for sixteen years, and dismisses all suggestion of retirement. It’s a declining industrial town in the depth of winter, some hours from Quebec City, and the film is punctuated with the number of days the local plant has been closed (over eight months). This affects the whole community, but Marcel can even flog a car to a laid-off worker. He is a kind, friendly man, a jovial, loving father and grandfather, but still a killer salesman, chummy and persistent rather than pushy, firmly believing that everyone needs a new car: “I lie to make people happy”.

Something happens. The film flows along without any apparently significant event until it does, simply filling out the few details of Marcel’s routine life, fleshing the character, conjuring the sublime placidity of his existence, and making all the more powerful the cracks that appear in his tranquil mien (veteran Gilbert Sicotte is superb). If he seemed dedicated to his work before, it now looks more like his life than his job; the others on the lot are uncomfortable at his not taking a break, but we feel the full force of his lonely tragedy, and recognise the car lot as his only life raft.

It is a finely controlled feature debut from Sébastien Pilote, discreetly shot, with some beautiful snowy moments, and similarly low-key but effective music; matters proceeds with fine, unhurried pacing that conveys a sense of the gentle rhythm of the town’s life, but it reveals itself in the end to be a film of quietly devastating hopelessness and unexpected power.

d/sc Sébastien Pilote p Marc Daigle, Bernadette Payeur ph Michel Le Veaux ed Michel Arcand ad Mario Hervieux cast Gilbert Sciotte, Nathalie Cavezzali, Jeremy Tessier, Jean-François Boudreau, Pierre Leblanc, Pierre Mailloux, Sébastien Harvey
(2011, Can, 107m)
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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Los viajes del vento (Wind Journeys)

Colombia’s 2010 Oscar submission was a little better than most of the South American fare i caught at the Santa Barbara Film Festival that year (I left a Chilean film that might have been interesting but I suspect not, and a Venezuelan film that was just horrible), but was nonetheless a pretty unrewarding experience.

Strange flat landscapes fill the screen, two thirds earth to one third sky. A burial takes place. An old man sets off on a donkey, carrying an accordion with horns on it, followed by a boy. The man is Ignacio Carillo, a famous juglar, (traveling musician) who refuses to play anymore, and is making a long journey to return the ‘devil’s accordion’ to his master.

The pair travels across fields, plains, deserts, mountains, and water. Igancio is a man of few words who hides behind his bushy mustache and low-brimmed hat. Fermin, the boy, alternates between looks of blank imbecility (though he’s no idiot) and fierce animal determination. He wants to learn the accordion, but it’s quickly apparent that he has no gift, even if he can squeeze his way through a pretty mean conga. Later, he will be baptized with lizard’s blood in a sunlit forest clearing amidst the sweat-glistening torsos of a group of drum students. Fortunately, learning and growing are not over-egged.

Along the way Ignacio gets roped into a striking machete duel on a bridge, observed by a splendid array of impassive faces. He also wins a rather fun accordion duel, though the contest turns more on extemporizing confrontational verses than actually playing. Naturally, he and Firman argue and part, then the boy gets to show his balls by retrieving the stolen accordion, and restoring Igancio’s will to live in a eerie sequence in a thatched mountain village.

The film is also largely free of spirituality and mysticism, even when they reach their journey’s end. The pace here slows satisfyingly almost to a standstill and reveals the journey to have been just something that must be done. The film is less about what things mean, and more about how they must be. There’s lots of good music and the sound of the wind is so prevalent as to become almost subliminal. But for such a slight tale of stark existentialism, with deliberately sketchy characters, at just shy of two hours it feels tiresomely short of incident, yet fails to achieve hypnotic contemplation.

d/sc Ciro Guerra p Diana Bustamente, Cristina Gallego ph Paolo Andrés Pérez ed Iván Wild pd Angélica Perea m Iván Ocampo cast Marciano Martinez, Yull Núñez, Agustin Nieves, Jose Luis Torres, Carmen Molina, Erminia Martinez
(2009, Col, 117m)
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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Kyatapirā (Caterpillar)

One of the most satisfying things about film festivals can be the sidebar of retrospectives or, in the case of the LA Film Festival, the intermittent "Films That Got Away". There was only one such this year, but it was a good one – Wakamatsu Kōji's follow-up to United Red Army (2007), and his penultimate completed feature before his accidental passing in 2012. Catterpillar played at Berlin and various other festivals – to generally favourable notices – and did indeed disappear (from these shores at least) almost without trace, so it was a treat to have a chance to see it on the big screen.

At the tail of his long and not-conventionally-distinguished career (though let it not be forgotten that he produced Oshima's Ai no corrida [In The Realm Of The Senses, 1976]), Kōji let the righteous leftist anger that bubbled through his 70's pink movie output come to the fore. United Red Army was a sprawling, coruscating, semi-personal history of leftist activity and its self-destructive tendencies in the 60s. Caterpillar is a film on a much smaller scale – almost a chamber piece – but the anger is thus even more focused and intense.

The set-up is simple: mid-way through the second Sino-Japanese war of 1937-45, a soldier (Kasuya Keigo) is brought back to his village, along with medals for bravery, and his wife is hysterically horrified. He has a dreadful scar on his head, a slash on his neck, no speech or hearing, and no limbs. Wakamatsu is bitterly sarcastic in having all revere this broken man as "a living war god", a village burstingly proud of its local hero, not least as we learn gradually that he was an unpleasant, violent husband before he went to war, and that he has returned haunted by the rape he committed on the mainland; we are certainly not encouraged to sympathize with the torture of being imprisoned in what remains of his body, in which this horrific memory replays to the point of madness.

Nor, in fact, are we especially encouraged to sympathize with the wife (Terajima Shinobu), although the self-disgust of bad faith in acting out the dutiful wife is palpable, serving her husband and thus the Empire, in caring for its hero, and setting an example to all other wives of returning soldiers. Although little wider context is indicated, beyond some filtered period footage (and some recreated), the small village can of course be taken to represent Japan as a whole, the sentiments of a nation in microcosm, in which all are in thrall to the might, and right, of the Empire; everyone is given to spouting encouraging home-front maxims at one another; and none, not even the wife, can open their eyes to the ludicrous human cost of war, chalking it all up to glory. There's even a feeble-minded priest bumbling around.

Behind the closed doors of the twisted conjugal home, however, things play out differently, almost entirely in the realm of sex. The wife submits with bored resignation to her immobile husband's urges increasingly visible, until gradually her frustration – partly at the absurdity of it all – and her long-harboured resentment bubble forth into open, rageful mockery.

Although much of the psychological action takes place in the shadowy confines of this house, Wakamatsu takes us regularly outside, to the gorgeous mountain-backed countryside and glimmering rice fields. The sheer beauty of the landscape is another sarcastic jab, in contrast to the maimed man's terrible existence and conscience, and the bitterly poisoned atmosphere of his household. Indeed, the film does not run on subtlety. It establishes a minimal (but satisfying) amount of psychological depth (enhanced by nice performances from the leads) and proceeds with a steady pace and seductive photography, to beat home its disgust, bordering on disbelief, at the nationalistic derangement of the times, and at the horrific futility of war. In this it is entirely successful.  

d Wakamatsu Kōji p Wakamatsu Kōji, Ozaki Noriko sc Kurosawa Hisako, Deguchi Izuru (Adachi Masao) ph Toda Yoshihisa, Tsuji Tomohiko ed Kakesu Shūichi pd Nozawa Hiromi cast Terajima Shinobu, Kasuya Keigo, Masuda Emi, Kawahara Sabu, Ishikawa Maki
(2010, Jap, 85m)
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Monday, September 8, 2014

Jimi: All Is By My Side

This is a film with multiple problems serious enough that the couple of very good things it has going for it stand little chance of compensating. As written and directed by 12 Years A Slave scribe John Ridley, the narrative sets off down the familiar musical biopic lane: musician discovered; gains success; deals with distractions and behaves badly; and that's it.. Perhaps because the production was denied the use of Hendrix's music by his estate (holding out for full control of the production), the story ends in mid-1967, with Jimi and his Experience trooping off to Monterey and international fame.

So the idea is that this is the backstory, how 1969's highest-paid rock musician and generally-acknowledged greatest guitar hero ever, got that way. But because of the aforementioned legal issues, we get nothing at all of the first album – the Experience go into the studio; Jimi's girlfriend interrupts and is dismissed; cut to post-session recriminations – nor any sense of how those first three singles made him a star in England beyond the musical cognoscenti.

Perhaps it is more interesting to concentrate on the man than the music. In this case, no. He loves to play, sure, but he does not appear driven by it, content to back up Curtis Knight to a tiny and indifferent audience. Aside from an easy-going charm, his character remains rather blanked-out by this lack of drive. What does he want? If he could do it his way, he'd play his own music, blues-inspired, but not slavishly-indebted as was the mode. But he needs to be prodded all the way, to leave the Cheetah Club, to unstraighten his hair, to take a manager, to start singing, to move to England, and he is quite content to go with the flow.

There are so many other things missing from this film aside from discernible character and the actual music – where, for example is the fascination with studio trickery already in evidence on the first album? Where are the roots of the drug infatuation that would kill him (beyond a subdued and irrelevant first acid trip)? What makes him so recalcitrant as to fuck up a northern England gig? And whence his unheralded, violent rage at girlfriend Kathy (Hayley Atwell)? And then there's race: he gets introduced to a smiling, slightly sinister Michael X (Adrian Lester) and scheming homunculus Ida (Ruth Negga) who want to recruit him as a symbol for black Britain, but for Jimi, blithely, as far as his audience is concerned, "they're all my people". He gets hassled once by police, but the implication is as much because he is a hippy as because he is black. He doesn't want to talk about it afterwards; nor does the film.

Having written himself this rather bland material, Ridley directs with a certain amount of desperation, resorting to jump cuts, overlapping dialogue, and audio drop-outs that play as irritating stylistic tics more than formal elucidations of a theme, never mind a creative vision. A couple of period-footage montages are cute but obtrusive – production design is fine, as is camerawork, but only in a recreated TV interview are we ever encouraged to believe we're watching a time capsule rather than a reenactment.

Compensations for all this come from some of the supporting cast. Several one-scene turns fail embarrassingly (Ashley Charles as a whiney Keith Richard; Burn Gorman as a parody East-End manager), but Andrew Buckley as Chas Chandler, Animals bassist turned manager, is a consistently appealing presence; and Imogen Poots more or less steals the film, irresistible as Linda Keith (Richard's girlfriend), who discovers Jimi in the first place. Another happy consolation is that, despite a woefully underwritten role, and that late and unexpected turn towards violence, André Benjamin as Hendrix is charismatic and thoughtful enough to hold our attention, conveying a personality perhaps not overloaded with brains, given to hippy-dippy prophecies about the coming of space brothers, not very interested in talking to anyone unless it's about Bob Dylan or Howling Wolf, but also convincingly displaying, as Keith has it almost as the film's final line, the "annoying habit of occasionally being simply profound".

The really fantastically good thing about this film however, is one that emerges all too seldom: those brief moments when, music rights permitting, Jimi is allowed to let loose with a band (as opposed to noodling in the corner of a pub, say). This only happens three or four times, but it is here that the movie gets things dead right (thanks to top-notch session musicians), and the music takes your breath away, be he ripping up a Howlin' Wolf tune with Cream (Clapton leaves the stage in a justifiable combination of indignation and humility); or, especially, the blistering Sgt Pepper with which Hendrix opens that album's release party, to the drop-jawed amazement of all present. These moments are so good, and so convincing of the original's genius, that one could wish that the film had simply taken a more fictional approach as a way round the music rights issues, allowing space for more of this kind of stuff. As it is, while serviceable but uninspired dramatic narrative scenes drag on in between these brief musical high points, the overwhelming feeling is that everyone should just shut up and let him play his guitar.

d/sc John Ridley p Danny Bramson, Anthony Burns, Jeff Culotta, Brandon Freeman, Tristan Lynch, Sean McKittrick, Nigel Thomas ph Tim Fleming ed Hank Gorwin, Chris Gill pd Paul Cross m Danny Bramson, Waddy Wachtel cast André Benjamin, Imogen Poots, Hayley Atwell, Andrew Buckley, Burn Gorman, Ruth Negga, Tom Dunlea, Oliver Bennett

(2013, UK/Ire/USA, 118m)
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Friday, August 29, 2014

Badman’s Territory

Through an administrative oversight, Badman’s Territory lies outside any official law-enforcement jurisdiction. When Sheriff Scott rides into town, he finds a community much like any other, except that most of the inhabitants are genial and long-settled outlaws. He’s not after trouble however, pals around with the James boys and the Daltons (with improbable cowboy Tierney as Jesse), flirts with Belle Starr, and is obviously destined for the strident lady newspaper editor, inevitably unpopular in her demands for a local police force. The crooked marshal from back in Texas stays conveniently out of the way, and things meander gently until his final-reel return initiates an unremarkable conclusion. Aimless but good-natured.

d Tim Whelan p Nat Holt sc Jack Natteford, Luci Ward ph Robert de Grasse ed Philip Martin Jr. ad Albert D’Agostino, Walter E. Keller m Roy Webb cast Randolph Scott, George “Gabby” Hayes, Ann Richards, Ray Collins, James Warren, Morgan Conway, Lawrence Tierney, Steve Brodie, Isabell Jewell
(1946, USA, 97min, b/w)

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Tepepa (aka Blood and Guns/Long Live The Revolution)

An obscure Welles paycheck that not even his presence can enliven. He’s a Mexican colonel with the eponymous firecracker (Milian) in his jail, an ex-revolutionary betrayed by the new ruling class. An English doctor rolls up, with his own reasons for wanting to off the grubby campesino, and flashbacks roll out to a by-the-numbers Morricone score and no great revelation. As an ostensible spaghetti western, its worst crime is that it’s just not that exciting, neither politically nor in the set-pieces; it has almost enough ambition to be surreally bad (almost), but the kindest thing one can say is that it helped pay for Chimes at Midnight.

d Giulio Petroni p Franco Clementi, Alfredo Cuomo, Richard Herland, Nicoloò Pomilia sc Ivan Dell Mea, Franco Solinas ph Francesco Marín ed Eraldo Da Roma pd Guido Josia m Ennio Morricone cast Tomas Milian, Orson Welles, John Steiner, Luciano Casamonica, Angel Ortiz, Annamaria Lanciaprima, José Torres
(1968, It, 136m)

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Que ta joie demeure (Joy Of Man's Desiring)

The cinema of Denis Côté is frequently concerned with banality, be it work, or the superficially drab existence of out-of-the-way communities, in the hotel-room cleaning of Tennessee (2005), the watching and waiting of Les lignes ennemies (2010), or the near-standstill slowness of life in rural Quebec in various features. The fascination, however, is in observing, in finding a way of looking that brings out the strange and, potentially, profound undercurrents. And so the off-season zoo of Bestiaire (2010) becomes a mysterious space full of animal parts and unreadable gazes, rather than an urge to anthropomorphism; the battened-down feelings and fears run deep beneath inexpressive surfaces in Curling (2010); and the junkyard of Carcasses (2009) takes on the air of some used-up science fiction setting.

The fact that we frequently have no idea at what kind of machines we are looking in Côté's latest, Que ta joie demeure (literally: "let your joy abide", the – almost – French title of Bach's Jesus bleibet meine Freude) produces a similar effect of slightly alternate reality, from an opening montage of shunting, Seuss-like contraptions and their mechanically musical soundtrack. Soon we see humans engaged in the wordless, repetitive work of operating, although cut briskly enough to avoid the easy allure of hypnosis.

For, ostensibly similar to Bestiare, this is an observational non-documentary look askance at an enclosed, normally unseen environment and its inhabitants. This time, however, Côté offers prompts to interpretation in a more explicit manner. We begin with a scripted prologue of teasing opacity, as a female worker talks over her shoulder in serious tones of the need for trust, how she is not a machine herself, and how her unseen listener may find "good times" if he succeeds "here". Who the listener might be is unclear – a new co-worker, possibly the viewer, although as the intimate tone suggests, perhaps even a lover. And in actual reality, of course, she is talking to the film-maker behind the camera.

She can indeed trust him. The camera style is unobtrusive (and careful in framing as ever), observing not only the work, from large machine shop to mattress factory, woodshop or coffee packers, but also the downtime: quotidian work tales, some stilted ribaldry, the indistinct burble of canteen conversation. We may wonder how much of the talk is strictly observational, however, as opposed to scripted, or indeed how many of these people are actual workers (Quebecois actors may not be easily recognizable on an international level, but some will recall the hangdog face of Olivier Aubin from various other Côté pictures). Around the 45-minute mark, set-ups have begun to take on the discreet air of staging – a rolled-up garage door acts as a raised curtain for the space we see from upstage, later to be the setting of the most theatrical of the film's few monologues. Even the shadow of a narrative emerges: a young woman changes workplace to be given something to do, to feel more fulfilled. Likewise, the downtime conversations increase in portent: a parable about a crooked employer; the question of who desires to work at the same machine for ten years; the floor-workers' attitude to the company as a whole. This in fact is one of the few moments wherein we get a real glimpse of the humanity at work in these inhuman settings but, depending on one's sympathy, it is either universalized or undercut by being repeated verbatim – each of two of the machine workers separately asserts that although they may seem not to care about the company, they do, for "this is half my life".

In fact, there is no real attention paid to the relationship between these bottom-rung workers and their management, a significant part of human experience under any working conditions; furthermore, whilst the effort to stay away from anthropomorphism in Bestiaire ended up suggesting a more intriguing sense of self for the animals, the uninvolved view here has an opposite effect, reducing the workers to repetitive drones and barely-scripted mouthpieces. One teasing semi-exception is a young man, seen usually on his own, repeating mantra-like the Reaganite slogan "hard work never killed anyone. Why take the risk?" We see him finally declaiming from a vantage point above the factory floor (we assume) but have no view, or clue, as to his listeners, nor the significance of his place within this film.

Thus, as the hand of the artist becomes more apparent, the near-mystical effect of framing and measured montage – Bestiaire's success story – starts to cede its power to more discernible manipulation. Some commentators suggest that Côté has fallen fatally between two stools, spoiling the uncanny effect of detached, askew observation, yet conjuring nothing from his more direct interventions. This is not entirely unfounded, but the whole is at last coherent in its gear towards tentative investigation and suggestion. We do notice what is missing, however: where is the workplace camaraderie, and where, indeed, is the joy? One worker is happy he works at his own machine rather than the dull one of the old man in the corner, but this feels like a very restricted and contextual form of happiness. Even the fulfillment that the displaced girl craves cannot help but feel ironic – she seeks "a job that gives me strength and courage", but ends up cleaning a ceiling sign for drinking water. The only thing like joy is found in the final sequence, as a child saws away at his violin, joyful only if one finds this more charming than aurally irksome.

As his career proceeds, Côté is increasingly careful not to lead us by the nose, but his gentle nudging here down various avenues of thought do not send us far. We may wonder about the nature (and the potential for fulfillment) of such manual labor, reliant entirely upon machines, as opposed to the moments of physical finesse like cloth-cutting and melamine-trimming (although here too, both are notably simple operations in traditionally hands-on crafts). Never mind wondering about the workers' lives and sense of self outside of the workplace, we may also wonder about the distinct implications of working exclusively in these artificially-lit, enclosed and metal-crowded spaces, as opposed to outdoor manual labor at a comparable level – the grunt work of construction, or crop-picking, for example. The scope of the film is too narrow to embrace any of these questions, and one cannot help but feel, therefore, that the subject has been exploited somewhat below its full potential. 

d/sc Denis Côté p Denis Côté, Sylvain Corbeil, Nancy Grant ph Jessica Lee Gangé ed Nicolas Roy m J.S. Bach cast Emilie Sigouin, Cassandre Emmanuel, Hamidou Savadogo, Ted Pluviose, Guillaume Tremblay, Olivier Aubin
(2014, Can, 70m)
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Wednesday, July 2, 2014


A provincial young man dreams of writing songs. He is not very good at it. A chance encounter with a touring American band with an unpronounceable name leads to his stepping in for their sectioned keyboard player, travelling to Ireland to spend a year of musical experiments and recording and, through slightly underhand methods, getting the band booked at a big-time US festival. But at what cost? Is he a weasely manipulator, or just blindly self-serving? Is art compatible with commerce? Is genius born from mental distress? Is it in fact essentially unfathomable? And why does the band's leader/singer/guru Frank never take off that large cartoon head?

These are questions asked by the film, and in fact it rather spoils things to outline too clearly the how and why of their asking. Director Abrahamson handles the issues with a lightness of touch and a fair amount of humour, whilst maintaining, however, the serious undercurrent they deserve. One of the most interesting and quietly unusual things about the film is that our hero, the young man Jon (Harry Potter's Domhnall Gleeson, now an uncanny Cate Blanchett doppelganger) is in fact a bit of a stupid shit – "a mediocre child" as he's labeled near the end – on a fundamental level unable to understand or appreciate what the band is seeking, the pushing of the corners that Frank encourages, but gaining after a while the self-awareness to know that he could never attain to anything like their artistic achievements. Thus, the next best thing is to ride, and steer, the coattails.

Gleason nicely conveys the gradual transformation from rabbit-in-the-headlights to quasi-Svengali, and does keep us guessing as to how far the damage of his manipulation is inadvertent – his talent may not be for music, but like some idiot-savant, he inexorably gets where he wants to go with blithe disregard for those around him.

The promotional materials are not reticent about which fairly-famous actor is beneath Frank's mask, although in some ways this too is not worth spoiling, if you happen not to have heard by now. The mystery of Frank is persuasive, as are the claims by all around him that he is a genius. From beneath that unmoving, slightly disturbing, and oddly sad-looking head come words of both wisdom and childlike enthusiasm (and, amusingly, helpful reports of his facial expressions), and an apparent ability to spin a decent song out of even a stray thread of upholstery. And, most importantly, this is really a pretty good band, of satisfyingly hard-to-pin-down genre, with scowling Maggie Gyllenhaal on theremin and electronics, Jack White's current drummer Carla Azar, and sullen Frenchie François Civil on guitar, bass, and Blixa Bargeld hair.

That they wind up doing über-slowcore covers of unlikely Americana folk tunes in a dive bar is played initially for laughs, but it turns out they do it really well, and the final low-key reunion confirms what we've suspected for a while, that this is quite a special group of people, with deep-running mutual sympathy and understanding, whose musical explorations are sincere and worth attending to, and that the likes of Jon have no place amongst them.

Internationally it will be apparent to only a few, but Frank's face is instantly recognisable as that of Frank Sidebottom, creation of eccentric Mancunian musician and comedian Chris Sievey. Sidebottom was a slightly unnerving man-child character whose cult status in the late '80s/early '90s might see him turn up equally on Saturday morning kids' TV or playing a side stage at Glastonbury. Sievey was a rather fascinating character, but not the inspiring experimental soundscape musician of the film. I really do not know how much he is present here bar the name and the head, but co-writer Jon Ronson was a member of his band, adapting his own memoir of a US tour (also admitting to drawing from the lives and myths of Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart). Sievey gave his blessing to the project before his untimely death in 2010, and the tone appears to be one of honouring his memory rather than plundering the persona. In any case, the film-makers have conjured a story both funny and quietly thoughtful, told in part through nicely-judged use of onscreen tweets and voiceover blog posts by an unusually yet unobtrusively flawed protagonist, with just the right amount of mystery and lack of romanticism surrounding Frank's mental state and character in general to make the finale genuinely moving.

d Leonard Abrahamson p David Barron, Ed Guiney, Stevie Lee, Andrew Lowe sc Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan ph James Mather ed Nathan Nugent pd Richard Bullock m Stephen Rennnicks cast Domhnall Gleason, Michael Fassbender, Scoot McNairy, Maggie Gyllenhall, François Civil, Carla Azar
(2014, UK/Ire, 95m)
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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Das groβe Museum (The Great Museum)

Behind the scenes of the great Künsthistorisches Museum of Vienna, as a close pan up Brueghel's Tower of Babel at the end of Das groβe Museum suggests, there are a lot of people doing a lot of work. This is in fact the only moment akin to commentary in this hands-off documentary – without talking heads, voiceover, or music – unless one counts also the gentle puncturing of the traditional sanctity of such grand repositories of fine art scattered through the opening sections: an employee gliding through the narrow passageways of the office/library on a scooter to pick up a photocopy; a workman violating the parquet floor and echoing silence of an empty gallery with a pickaxe; the dusting of the groin of some giant marble Greek dude (it's Theseus), a cheap but surefire titter-getter.

With a camera as stately as the museum, and as carefully respectful as the museum workers are towards their objects, director Johannes Holzhausen shows us various aspects of the staff's work, from bug-trap inspection, to fixing the fiendish mechanism of an automaton, consulting with visiting specialists about possible over-painting, or archiving the file of a retired employee. To be expected, there is a meticulous professionalism on display here, and the passages of conservation have a wordless tension that recalls the most celebrated of fictional bank-heist sequences, all steady, careful fingers and held breath. Likewise, a visit to the Dorotheum auction house has its inherent excitement, even if the curators depart empty-handed.

This is apposite, however, for so do we in a similar way. The film's focus is not on the art contained in the museum, but on those who care for and present it. We see only a fraction of the collection, and most of that denuded of its artistic halo, objects to be examined in their physicality more than appreciated for their powers of spiritual transformation (this is a given). As such, the film makes an uncanny companion piece to its festival-circuit confrère, Denis Côté's Que ta joie demeure, in that it is the work that is significant, not that which is being worked upon. And if the museum seems like an artisanal sanctuary of serenity and beauty, and the film itself something of a promotional tool, Holzhausen also reveals some of the inevitable discord: a docent's meeting in which one of their number pleads to be treated not as the lowest level of employee, and to be introduced to the other departments; a dead-end budgetary meeting where accounting gently but firmly butts heads with curatorial solipsism; or simply the dullness of reciting the schedule for the president's signing of the visitor's book.

The president is coming because this is not quite an everyday look at the museum's operation, however. The couple of years Holzhausen spent filming were the last of a ten-year program to renovate, restore, and rehang the Künstkammer galleries. Thus much of what we see is concerned with bringing off the reopening, an exceptional occasion in the museum's history, and one through which it aims to rebrand itself, allowing the museum director and her staff to voice various concerns about how best to appeal to the modern public. Holzhausen has spoken in interview of his dismay at the current state of museum administration, for whom lack of funding necessitates more concern for visitor quotas than for the continuity of custodianship; he also disdains the multiple signage-use of the word "Imperial", researched as being "particularly attractive to tourists". Yet there is no disapprobation apparent in the documentary – we are left to wonder for ourselves if this superficial way of attracting visitors is a good thing or not (and it is taken by the museum staff as a fact of life outside of moral, ethical, or cultural value). Likewise, the immense historical, cultural, and political weight of the Hapsburg Empire – it is the collection of their final scions that makes up the Künstkammer – is touched upon a couple of times, but left hanging as the elephant one would rather not ponder. This is no investigation nor, really, a detailed portrait, but a snapshot, albeit handsome and mostly engaging.

 d Johannes Holzhausen p Johannes Rosenberger sc Johannes Holzhausen, Constantin Wulff ph Joerg Burger, Attila Boa ed Dieter Pichler
(2014, Austria, 94m)
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Tuesday, June 17, 2014


A slow-burn observation of a small circle of off-centre individuals in an isolated, snow-bound setting, Curling is not without a certain dry, almost absurd humour, but the direction displays an unusual rigour and discreet formal range, and it is one of the most beautifully photographed films (by Josée Deshaies) that I have seen in recent years. Despite some obtrusive loose ends, it ends up an impressive, disquieting, and rather moving achievement.

The deadpan humour is exemplified by a scene where our “hero” Jean-François is dressed and face-painted as a giant bowling pin in the alley where he works, talking to his colleague, an impeccably foxy goth girl in a platinum Marilyn wig. They look bizarre, but their conversation is serious, about self-imposed isolation, fear, and connection between people, the film’s fundamental concerns. This is followed by another scene of borderline absurdity, as Jean-François is bothered by a grotty child, rather bearing out the motivations behind his semi-disturbing home life.

We learn at the start that his daughter, Julyvonne, is home-schooled, but discover gradually that this but one aspect of a weirdly cloistered existence. The mother is absent, her single appearance suggesting trauma, and adding sinister weight to the already disquieting situation. There’s little hint of anything physically untoward, however: Jean-François loves his daughter very much and keeps her hidden at home through fear of all the danger that could occur out there in the world.

Their relationship, in the brief domestic scenes, displays a strange equality of respect. But he is also the strict rule-maker, withholding dessert because good behavior has already been rewarded, and occasionally allowing Julyvonne to dance to music on the living room stereo. Does he choose the music or does she? The first is a hammer blow of elucidation – “I Think We’re Alone Now”, with its opening “children behave..” the pointed awkwardness heightened by Tiffany’s desperate, synthetic cheerfulness and the couple’s incongruously quiet contemplation.

The second such scene makes a similar point, to Stacey Q’s “Two of Hearts”. The irony is as heavy-handed as Jean-François’s frightened fatherhood, and we sense he might know this too. He has withdrawn from the world, and taken Julyvonne along with him, but his love is not entirely blind, and that is no small part of his pain. He knows that his mind has been twisted by some crippling, inchoate fear of interaction, of contact with others; restrained pace here is no stylistic frippery but a fundamental, tragic character trait, a near-paralysis stunningly literalized in portraits, long takes, cropped compositions, and perfect use of the short zoom (there’s a couple of perfect focus-pulls also).

Jean-François is not beyond redemption. His amusing boss Kennedy at the bowling alley encourages a friendly relationship, and Isabelle the goth draws him out a little in kindly fashion – he seems like a good man who cannot help himself. Kennedy, behind his bluff exterior, tries in gentle ways to introduce some sweetness and fun into Julyvonne’s life. Her joy at being allowed a rare outing to play with other children is palpable. Debutante Philomène Bilodeau’s mostly blank performance is appropriate for the character, described as having “nothing in her eyes”. But that is not quite true – she is an obedient little girl, but can speak up to her father in a mature, equal way; and we see and are touched by her excitement at the pleasures he allows her.

The opening scene explains that she has an astigmatism, advanced and undiagnosed. This life is not good for her health, emotional or physical, and is actively eroding her ability to relate to the world at large. Her father is played by veteran Emmanuel Bilodeau, and for the role of Julyvonne he suggested his own daughter. There is certainly an intimacy to their relationship which must come from real life, but this is his film – what a face! – and his own closed-down performance nonetheless includes a glimpse of the inner life of conflict, and the tragedy of self-awareness, revealed gradually, just as our sympathy replaces mistrust.

Coté’s script is measured, unafraid to delay explanation: this is the sort of film that a couple of scenes later one can find oneself wondering, what was with that kid’s body? Not all the explanations arrive. The danger Jean-François so fears is presented obliquely: it is intimated that there is a killer on the loose; bodies in the woods are Julyvonne’s only playmates; and there’s blood in the room of the motel where Jean-François also works (presented in first-rate fashion through dialogue before image).

Not everything comes off: Julyvonne finds a caged tiger in a snowy field which may or may not represent her burgeoning pubescence. There is otherwise no sexual dimension (or is her father looking too hard during that second song?). Those unexplained bodies: the dead kid is a particularly distracting irrelevance and Julyvonne’s “dolls” are a pat morbidity. The apparent irrelevance of the film’s title is thuddingly eroded – we can achieve something if we do it together (unlike the individual efforts of the ostensibly similar sport of bowling, of course, of which we see rather more). Likewise, Jean-François’s recuperation feels all too easy: his dream is finely presented but still too pat, and the only other thing he needs, it seems, is a good lay, even if the run-up is a lovely escalation of friendliness and growing comfort with surely the most tenacious whore in recent cinema.

That said, the slight missteps don't matter. In the theatre, the opening shot actually brought tears to my eyes for the colour, composition and grain. Some of that quality even survives on the DVD screener, and it makes one ponder, now that we’re well into the digital age, whether a real distinction may be necessary between film and video, as one distinguishes, say, between a daguerreotype and a photograph.

Natural wintery light is used to gorgeous effect, composition is scrupulously precise, and the hopefulness of the ending is as much to do with Jean-François’s actually cracking a smile as it is to do with the colors of the final shot, outdoors, with crowds of tobogganers, black and red dotting a snowy hillside beneath a sky of a perfect, optimistic blue. One beautiful but pointless shot of a door jamb, however – at a tense emotional moment – betrays the third, secret, central character.

This is not invisible direction. That Coté used to be a film critic contributes perhaps to his film’s being slightly over-calculated, willful, and frequently brilliant. His control is highly impressive, the emotional line of the film valid and affecting, as much due to conception as to sensitive playing, and Deshaies’ photography will make you swoon. Hobbled by a few distractions it may be, but this is seductive and intelligent film-making of an impressive order.

d/sc Denis Côté p Denis Côté, Stéphanie Morissette ph Josée Deshaies ed Nicolas Roy ad Marjorie Rhéaume cast Emmanuel Bilodeau, Philmène Bilodeau, Roc LaFortune, Sophie Desmarais
(2010, Can, 96m)
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Monday, June 16, 2014

United Red Army - the Path to Asama Mountain Lodge (Jitsuroku Rengo Sekigun: Asama sanso e no michi)

Japanese director Wakamatsu Kōji was best-known for popular pinku eiga softcore movies until this burst on the festival circuit in 2008, but even such lurid titles as Go, Go Second Time Virgin (1969) and (especially) Ecstasy of the Angels (1972) had a marked political content (and to produce Oshima's Ai no corrida was a bold political move in itself).

The film divides roughly into three sections across its three-hour running time and culminates in the infamous 1972 mountain lodge siege, the last-stand defiance of five members of the radical leftist student group, the United Red Army. A title announces at the start that the film is factual, but with fictional elements interpose; it begins with a dizzying documentary recap of radical student action from 1960 to 1971, blending newsreel footage, statistics of actions and arrests, and a frankly bewildering number of name and age captions for the actors and actresses who gradually pop up. From humble beginnings in objection to raised tuition fees, the various student groups combine, divide, get bitten by the bug of communism, fight amongst themselves, hijack aeroplanes, train in Palestine and eventually two of the paramilitary factions join forces to become the United Red Army.

The group retreated to a base in the mountains at the start of 1971 ostensibly for military training, but here in the second part of the film, in an isolated, claustrophobic cabin, we are witness to the terrible face of ideological fanaticism as the standard practice of self-critique is taken to extremes. Rather than fighting the war on the outside, the Army’s attention turns itself inward as the intimidating and unflinching leader Mori Tsuneo and his homunculus 2IC Nagata Hiroko pick on one member after another, and the quest for ideological purity becomes a purge: the first individuals are tied, beaten, and left outside to die of exposure, and the later ones simply executed. So powerful is the sway of the leadership and the intensity of the revolutionary ideal that one young woman is induced to beat her own face to a bloody pulp. There’s no doubt that Mori’s demented zeal is in part due to shame over his desertion of a group operation in the late ’60s, before begging to be readmitted; and evil-eyed Nagata seems to relish her power no more than when jealously needling one of the attractive young women and effectively sentencing her to death. We see all of the twelve victims meet their end, each commemorated with a caption of name and age (all in their early twenties) and the whole extended sequence is frightful; if the fundamental roots of how the striving for ideological purity can become so twisted are not exposed, the path it then takes from fanaticism to semi-fascist insanity is at least laid clearly and horribly before us.

With the police closing in, the remainder of the group splits and disperses. The leaders are picked up and most of the others arrested, but five pursued men make their way through the snowy mountains to a ski-ing lodge, where they hole up with the inn-keeper’s wife while the police surround them. It has the self-knowingly tragic air of a last stand as they prepare to fight and die for the memory their murdered comrades. As in the secret retreat, we are kept entirely inside the lodge, hearing only voices from outside, and experiencing the impressively disorienting water and smoke attacks with the subjectivity of the radicals. After ten days the five were in fact taken alive, and the film closes with a textual wrap-up of Japanese radical activity since then, beginning with Mori’s suicide in jail, and culminating in the self-immolation of a former member in 2001 in protestation over the treatment of Palestine. It is an incisive reminder that if what we have just seen is history, the commitment of the protagonists has a directly traceable relevance and importance to present-day international politics.

Wakamatsu’s film was a project close to his own heart. He had affiliations with the radical left in the sixties, even joining the Red Army for training in Palestine which resulted in his making a film about them and the PFLP in 1971. In order to make United Red Army, he mortgaged his home, used it as the ski lodge location, and completely destroyed it for the finale. Nonetheless, the viewpoint of the film is mostly detached and objective: the first third is almost pure documentary, with brief re-stagings of meetings, and the second third is unflinchingly detached, a cold eye the only way to try and comprehend the insane spiral of zealotry, with no excuses made. Allowing us no view of the outside, the third section encourages closer identification with the radicals, but on a more humanistic than political level as, isolated in the lodge, their political ideals become more abstract than ever: Nixon is shaking hands in China; fear and futility reign; the eating of a cookie can become anti-revolutionary; and the only remaining action in which meaning can be found is resistance on principle. It’s on this more subjective ground that Wakamatsu makes his only false move, as a pleadingly plaintive song lyric plays under a moment of emotional desperation; otherwise the score by Jim O’Rourke is impressively low-key, chugging urgently along to the first section’s barrage of information, and elsewhere underscoring with a distant guitar reminiscent of Neil Young’s Dead Man. For the rest, the film is note perfect: long and involved to be sure, harrowing in places and too dense for the casual viewer, but a ultimately an important and heartfelt bearing of witness.

d/ed Wakamatsu Kōji p Ozaki Noriko sc Wakamatsu Kōji, Kakegawa Masayuki ph Toda Yohishisa, Tsuji Tomohiko m Jim O'Rourke cast Sakai Maki, Iura Arata, Namiki Akie, Jibiki Gô, Ohnishi Shima
(2007, Jap, 190m)
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Monday, March 24, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

It is apparently of little concern to Jim Jarmusch, the common journlistic shorthand that labels him as some "high priest of hip". He seems actively to be courting the title in fact, with Only Lovers Left Alive, the most languorously cool movie of his career (amidst stiff competition). It is a love story, intrinsic to which is the fact that Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) are vampires (their third wedding was 1868) whose relationship has strengthened and deepened to a near-mystical level over the years; as has their knowledge and appreciation of science, nature, and cultural figures and artifacts, allowing for the fetishisation of all kinds of musical instruments and equipment, books and literary figures: an impossible level of hipness attainable only via several times a normal human lifespan. And of course they dress to kill, and wear sunglasses at night.

As the opening sequence demonstrates, to the accompaniment of a needle dropping on a scratchy (and of course deliciously rare) soul 45, their existence is zonked-out placid, she in unmatched boho-chic in Tangiers, he in a shadowy, crumbling, dark-wood mansion in an abandoned part of Detroit, recording his music amidst towers of vintage audio gear. Eve is several thousand years old, Adam more like 500, but by this time both are above the old-fashioned traditions of beastly behaviour, instead sourcing uncontaminated blood from doctors and labs, and in the case of Adam, shunning almost all contact with the human world ("fucking zombies" he likes to spit).

Although living half a world apart at the start - proportionate to their hundreds of years together, something like a weekend break - Eve travels to Adam to console his world-weariness. They may both be vampires, strongly and believably in love, but they deliberately positioned as yin and yang. To help us get the idea, she dresses most frequently in white, he almost exclusively in black. She upbraids him gently for his self-obsession, as a waste of time which could be spent living, enjoying the world, nature, dancing. He, on the other hand, is like "Hamlet played by Syd Barrett" (Jarmusch's first direction to Hiddlestone). It is hardly the latter's fault, therefore, if his character feels both like a box-checking archetype of hipsterism, and a little second-hand (right down to his photo wall of heroes, from Poe and Kafka, to Buster Keaton and Joe Strummer, to the slightly dubious - pace Jarmusch's filmography - inclusion of Neil Young).

Hiddleston plays well with Swinton (although certain Americanisms in the script sit ill on his English tongue). They do make a beautiful couple, believably at ease with one another, and actually conversing as a long-term couple might, but the onus of bringing warmth and beauty to the love relationship thankfully falls to Swinton, and the movie would be a far less attractive proposition without her. It is all too easy to forget that beneath the Bowie-alien alabaster appearance she can command a beautiful sense of openness and wonder, enthusiasm and love, conjuring a real deep-rooted bond with her dear friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), speed-reading her beloved books with her fingertips in almost ecstatic excitement, and rendering believable the central, enduring relationship.

Adam denies his heroes: the insecure egotism of the artist. Eve never would, for she is ready to appreciate all. Thus when he drives her past Jack White's childhood home, her happy reaction is one of affection rather than the reverence of Adam's photo wall. Her outlook is largely one of wonder; his one of cynicism, and disgust at those who lack his refined taste (and at those who thwarted his scientific heroes from Gallileo to Tesla).

There is of course a third approach to these relationships with culture and beauty, and that's not to give two hoots. This is embodied by Eve's sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) who turns up halfway through to cause a bit of chaos. She is much younger, and wilder, and hails from LA ("zombie central", as Adam describes it). Wasikowska is delightfully willful and bratty (although like Adam, to quite a degree predictable - why on earth would the elder couple leave her alone with an obvious victim they'd prefer to keep around?) and departs calling Adam and Eve a pair of "condescending snobs".

What she refers to is their seclusion from the human world, with the appearance of being above such things, rather than doing so for their own self-preservation - something Ava too might learn with age - but it holds also for the esoteric rarefication of their existence, which Jarmusch packs to overflowing with empty cultural references. Even those already listed amount to an excess, and that's barely the half of it, denied individual significance in and of themselves in the context of the film, and rarely with any specific relevance: the fact that they travel with passports in the names of Stephen Daedalus and Daisy Buchanan, for example, provides no additional subtext - it's a throwaway gag.

The most egregious example of this is the character of Marlowe who as a cultural figure, beyond just being a dear friend of Eve's, adds nothing to the film except a chance for Jarmusch to state bluntly his anti-Stratfordian views, with no need for supporting argument, and the lightly touched-upon issue of getting one's work out there without the need for personal recognition. This more or less represents the film's superficial hipness to a tee, references as badges of cool, of rebelliousness, of knowledge, without emotional import, significance, or even appreciation as endless nods are made. By this time, one expects little profundity from Jarmusch, particularly after the damp squibs of his last two pictures (Broken Flowers and Limits of Control). Beyond the hang-out cool atmosphere of his movies, their saving grace is usually the deadpan humour, on display in only fits and starts here: following a startlingly swift acid bath Eve blinks out "Well that certainly was visual".

This is a decent summation of the film. It looks fantastic, from her yak-hair wig to his glorious lute, and the vampire's leather gloves that the film-makers include to invent their own bit of vampire mythology (unexplained, but basically as some form of protection when they are outside their home turf). One cannot fault its cool, and it looks and sounds terrific. DP Yorick Le Saux (veteran of several Ozon films) shoots a lovely shadowy night-time world; production and costume designers Marco Bittner Rosser (V for Vendetta, Hellboy, Inglorious Bastards) and Bina Daigelier (Che, The Limits of Control) have really gone to town, from the (slightly too-precious) goblets from which the vampires drink their blood, to Hurt's (500-year-old!) waistcoat; and Jarmusch's band SQÜRL with lutist Jozef Van Wissen provide the perfect, narcotic score, drenched in feedback.

But in the service of what? The film raises all sorts of intriguing questions and trains of thought - how the human race has degraded itself and the planet; vampirism as drug addition; how one could possibly keep oneself sane living for thousands of years, or remain engaged as a couple for that long; the significance of authorship; even artistic endeavour as as a kind of vampirism on one's predecessors - yet never worries at them. Adam and Eve's frequent talk of Einstein's spooky-at-a-distance theory, as though they are the separated particles operating on one another, feels like an easy and not-quite-justified shorthand; and even the title is poetically opaque to the point of meaninglessness. Other commentators have described the vampire state on display here as a metaphor for hipsterism, an eternal seen-it-all-before / I-have-a-better-record-collection-than-you ennui, and in Adam's case this certainly holds. I realised as I watched that as a 15-year-old, say, I'd have found it just about the coolest thing ever. At some years' distance, however, the relentless and superficial litany of reference palls, however sincere and celebratory; surface dominates at the expense of substance. The gloves were added not least because they look cool, "a very important criteria [sic]" Jarmusch admits. At some point the urge to be cool begins to undermine its very self.

d/sc Jim Jarmusch p Jeremy Thomas, Reinhard Brundig ph Yorick Le Saux ed Affonso Gonçalves pd Marco Bittner Rosser m Jozaef van Wissem cast Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin, Jeffrey Wright, Slimane Dazi
(2013, UK/Ger/Fr/Cyp/USA, 113m) 
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Sunday, January 5, 2014

Vic + Flo ont vu un ours (Vic + Flo Saw A Bear)

This is something like an expansion on Côté's last, the strictly observational non-documentary Bestiaire (2012), although that in turn was a distillation of his favoured practice of looking at slightly odd characters shut away from the world. In Curling (2010) and Carcasses (2009), for example, it was by their own volition, as distinct from the animals of Bestiaire, and in Vic +Flo the same is true, although that volition is rather weighted since both women are not-long released from prison.

Vic goes to stay with her invalid uncle in some Quebec backwoods. As incarnated by Pierrette Robitaille she is magnificent, stern, sardonic, and beautiful at 63, with a funny loose-limbed, wide-legged stance, and a well-guarded streak of vulnerability. Her lover Flo soon joins her (Romane Bohringer),, if anything more feisty. These are women used to standing up for themselves, although as a pointedly wordless flashback makes clear, they are used also to the chat and camaraderie of the yard, whereas now there's just the pair of them to sit in the glade outside their house. Exchanging one prison for another is eating at Flo a little, so no wonder Vic worries she may lose her, herself unprepared to move to a city since "I'm old enough to know I hate people."

She doesn't entirely, however, almost too willing to make friends, not that you'd notice. Unfortunate since, in the way of these things, the past is about to catch up with the ex-cons. The air of not a lot happening is perfectly off-set by this slow burn, and when it comes, it hits hard. The point of the film is more to observe these outside people, people who've fallen through the cracks, making what they can of their lives, forming small alliances, connections, and joshing friendships (particularly with the decent parole officer). The thriller elements intrude in a realistically brutal way, without unnecessary explanation, and serve to influence and illuminate Vic and Flo's relationship more than to thrill (that said, the baddie is terrific).

Shot with ugly-beautiful high contrast and woven with humour both bitter and sweet, this shows Côté becoming perhaps more cinematic-romantic with an ending that is both tragic and touchingly, impossibly happy. It is capped by a final shot, however, which cannot be described in detail without spoiling (ditto the title), but comes off as a weak and irrelevant joke. A shame, since up to this point it is a film of fine, affecting performances and perfectly restrained direction, that otherwise does not put a foot wrong.

d/sc Denis Côté p Sylvain Corbeil, Stéphanie Morissette ph Ian Lagarde ed Nicolas Roy ad Colombe Raby cast Pierrette Robitaille, Romane Bohringer, Marc-André Grondin, Marie Brassard,  Georges Molnar, Olivier Aubin, Pier-Luc Funk
(2013, Can, 95m)

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L'inconnu du lac (Stranger at the Lake)

It’s understandable that Guiraudie won the best director of Un certain regard at Cannes this year, since for the most part L’inconnu du lac is a very tight piece of work, effectively exploring the time and place of a single location and milieu and unobtrusively depicting the mores of a gay lakeside cruising ground, as well as charting the uncertainties that blossom as a new relationship deepens, and building with a skillful slow-burn to a long final shot of exquisite tension.

Since it occurs at the end of the film’s second day, it’s giving little away to reveal that handsome young Franck observes a murder at dusk (in another remarkably long, tense shot). Much of the rest of the film is a dance of avoidance, denial, and animal attraction between Franck and his new lover, playing out as it might between any new couple, slightly wary of giving too much away, except here the stakes are much higher.

The other part of the film’s project is a depiction of this very particular place. We arrive each day in turn with Franck (and the film confines itself exclusively to the lake and its environs) and gradually get to know a few of the regular habits of the cruising ground, along with some of the regulars (the most prominent being the harmless podgy man who wanks in the woods – his function is nothing more than comic relief but he’s more than funny enough to justify his presence). Most effectively, the banality of the opening shot – cars parked haphazardly at the edge of the woods – becomes an important signifier through repetition, depending on which cars are, or are not, there.

Guiraudie’s camera (under DP Claire Mathon) repeatedly turns itself skyward, to the treetops, the lowering sun, and ominous clouds, or descends to catch the noonday or evening light on the waves in rather lovely abstract compositions. Like the repeated view off the parking area, these apparently empty shots gain power through accretion, transitions of afternoon to evening clearly and beautifully delineated to capture the sameness of those lazy, identical summer vacation days. The blazing sunlight and lush greenery, however, give way come nightfall to the startling beams of headlights and the sinister blackness of the woods.

One may as well mention too that Guiraudie does not shirk on the main point of the place. Most of the cast and extras are naked most of the time, and there’s a healthy amount of love-making, occasionally explicit though never solely for titillation. A lengthy coupling between the main pair is shot and cut to rank with the best sex scenes in cinema in terms of presenting both physicality and feeling, and they also get a couple of nice romantic moments in crepuscular silhouette on the beach.

All this is excellent, but the two main supporting characters are a little problematic. The spidery police inspector (a perfect Jérôme Chappatte), who pops up with amusing unexpectedness, seems to have a bugbear about the apparent callousness of these people; his comments and disbelief at the lake’s habitués’ easy return to routine mere days after the death of “one of your own” is meant presumably to demonstrate how even an astute and observant outsider may not fully understand the workings of this community, but comes off at best as stating the obvious, at worst as uncountered moralizing which therefore takes on a tinge of directorial comment (the question is: is it ok to take the stand that one dude’s as good as another and some dude got killed, so what?)

The other significant character is the lonesome, fat-bellied Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao), sitting a little removed from the main cruising ground each day. Franck swims up to him on the first day and a rather sweet friendship develops. Henri too is an outsider, with no interest in picking up men, and although he does not judge, his sincere assumption that most of those here have wives or girlfriends at home, and are just homo on the side, from time to time, is an almost unbelievable anachronism. The real problem, however, is that the finale reveals his presence to be most useful as a device to facilitate the film’s denouement, in a display of character motivation that feels far more familiar from fiction than from real life.

A couple of other instances of motivation require a pinch of salt also: this is an astonishingly foolhardy place to commit a murder, a place full of heads ever-ready to turn and look, and where searching eyes prowl the woods. The act can be read as a spur-of-the-moment decision, but the lack of character development in the perpetrator (quite the opposite, in fact, in the final scene as what few implied shadings are stripped away to reveal a basic bogeyman) gives no clue; likewise Franck’s willingness to put himself in danger, at first in general, and later in a specific replay of what he witnessed.

That said, Pierre Deladonchamps’ performance is spot-on, proverbially young, dumb and full of cum, with active, often wounded eyes that convey the thought processes, but suggest that these are nonetheless none too profound. And as the object of his lust, dashingly mustachioed Christophe Paou is a convincing-enough hunk of meat to make the blind attraction wholly believable. The flaws are minor: these attractive performances, presented with an impressive control of pacing, time and place, and the no-nonsense handling of the whole cruising scene, are more than enough to paper over a few cracks.

d/sc Alain Guiraudie p Sylvia Pialat ph Claire Mathon ed Jean-Christophe Hym ad Roy Genty, François-Renaud Labarthe, Laurentt Lunetta cast Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d'Assumçao, Jérôme Chappatte, Mathieu Vervisch, Gilbert Traina, Emmanuel Daumas, Alain Giraudie
(2013, Fr, 100m)
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