Sunday, June 30, 2013

Stoker

Extravagant pieces of filmmaking often get accused of favouring style over substance, but in a film like Stoker the style is the only substantial thing about it. Stoker is based on a screenplay by actor Wentworth Miller, which appeared on the 2010 "Black List" of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood, but in the finished product his script hardly appears to be the film's strongest suit. The film is largely a riff on Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, dressed up with all manner of gothic, Freudian and fairytale imagery, but these elements never come together into a satisfying whole. Instead, Stoker is distinguished by Park Chan-wook's direction, which almost singlehandedly elevates it from something worthy of dismissal to something worth paying attention to.

Park Chan-wook is the Korean director whose reputation has been built largely on his Vengeance trilogy, where the stylistic verve of Park's approach increased in accordance with the deepening darkness of his twisted tales. Any fears that Park's distinct signature would be diluted when he made the move to America are quickly allayed in Stoker, which establishes an unsettling, off-kilter tone from the start. The heightened colours and sound design seem to reflect the assertion made by India (Mia Wasikowska) that she can "see and hear what others cannot" and creates a sense of vague unease. We first meet India as she runs through the grounds of her home, searching for the birthday present left by her father, but this day – her 18th birthday – coincides with her father's death in a terrible car accident.

India is morose, introspective and troubled; a difficult teen who recalls such forbearers as Wednesday Addams or Heathers' Veronica. After her father's death, she is left with her mother Evelyn, who is played by Nicole Kidman. Kidman is so good in the brief flashes when she is given something to work with here – in particular, she delivers a heart-stopping monologue to her daughter late in the film – I couldn't help lamenting the fact that everyone seems to forget about her for much of the movie. The focus instead falls on India's relationship with her mysterious uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom she didn't even know existed until her turned up at the funeral and began charming his late brother's widow.

Matthew Goode has the kind of slick, affable charm that instantly reveals him to be a psychopath, and sure enough, it isn't long before people start disappearing. India's growing fascination with him seems to unlock something disturbing deep inside herself, and Park does frequently generate a queasy tension and simmering dread in the film's opening half hour. As the three family members sit down at the dinner table, the manner in which his camera moves around them suggests a constantly shifting dynamic, and this is where Stoker is at its most potent, when Park skilfully exploits Goode's piercing eyes, Wasikowska's sullen depth or Kidman's nervous energy. The director is superb at finding these isolated moments in which the image, sound and performance create a mood that is uniquely the film's own. He achieves it again later on in the film when Charlie and Mia sit together at the piano and play a piece (written by Philip Glass, although the film's composer is Clint Mansell) in an encounter that is charged with an erotic energy.

On a scene-by-scene basis, Stoker is as good as anything else out there, but I must specify that statement really does only apply to the film on a scene-by-scene basis. The film never finds a clear rhythm, it never flows naturally from one scene into another, no matter how artfully Park and his editor Nicolas De Toth cut between them. It's as if Park attacked each moment in the script on an individual basis and decided on the best way to exploit it on screen without giving a great deal of thought to how all of these pieces would fit together. There's something very admirable about seeing a filmmaker go for broke in such a fashion, but Stoker's unending stream of dazzling directorial coups eventually becomes exhausting. I started to look for something underneath the bracing surface, and found nothing. There's no emotional weight, no context for these characters' behaviour and no fresh take on some age-old ideas. It all feels frustratingly empty.

When what's happening in the story is so tritely obvious (although the climactic revelations from Charlie's past are horribly muddled), the question of what Stoker is actually about becomes more pertinent, and it's a difficult question to answer. The film feels so empty of real content and having enjoyed its aesthetic pleasures on one viewing I'm finding it hard to imagine returning to the film in the future. But there is pleasure to be had in its images, its sounds and its compositions – that much is undeniable – and finding a film that impresses so much on those levels is rare enough to make this one worth recommending. Sometimes you want a film in which every element fits, but sometimes it's sufficient to see a talented director take a middling script and simply direct the hell out of it.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Blackfish

Orcas are widely known as killer whales, but that is something of a misnomer. While there have been some recorded incidents of orca attacks on humans in the wild, none have been known to be fatal. However, one glance at the list of recorded attacks by orcas in captivity reveals how dangerous these supremely intelligent creatures can be when trapped, and Gabriela Cowperthwaite's documentary Blackfish explores this phenomenon to remarkably powerful effect. Many people have seen and loved the orca displays at Sea World and other parks over the decades, and this form of entertainment has developed into an enormously profitable industry, but Blackfish provides a penetrating look at the darkness and pain that it is built upon. The cost to both human and animal life is devastatingly high.

Blackfish centres on a bull orca named Tilikum, who has been in captivity for thirty years and a resident attraction at SeaWorld in Florida for twenty. Tilikum has been involved in three deaths – two of trainers, and one of a man who snuck into the pool at night – and the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau is used by Cowperthwaite as the film's framing device. Brancheau was a highly regarded professional who had been working with orcas for half of her life, but she didn't stand a chance as soon as Tilikum turned on her. Cowperthwaite interviews many former SeaWorld employees who talk about the deep affection and bond they felt with the creatures they trained, but as sincere as they sound they also come off as dangerously na├»ve. We are talking about a huge, wild creature built for the open seas who has spent its life trapped and abused by humans, and Blackfish argues that our treatment of orcas creates psychological scars that turn them into killers.

The evidence collected by Cowperthwaite and her team is very persuasive. We see footage of an orca being forced to spend its nights in a metal box that is barely big enough to give it wriggle room, the kind of space we would decry as cruel and disgusting if it was a human jail cell. Likewise, the punishment meted out to the orcas when they fail to complete tasks is simply asking for trouble; these are creatures used to hunting for their own food, not having it dangled over their nose and then withdrawn. Perhaps the most powerful impact on the orcas comes from the very moment of their capture, as they are separated from the family unit that is so integral to their way of life –one shattering sequence shows an orca having its offspring taken away and emitting a high-pitched, long-range scream. The animals in captivity are depressed, confused, lonely, scared, but all of that is hidden away from public view behind the smiling face of the SeaWorld propaganda machine. SeaWorld tells its visitors that the drooping dorsal fin visible on so many of its orcas is common to 25% of orcas in the wild, which is an outright lie. It's simply an externalisation of the pain they are going through.

Cowperthwaite is smart enough to know that the footage and personal testimonies she has at her disposal is powerful enough, and she doesn't need to overplay it. Her film is heartfelt and strident but the sharp editing ensures it remains focused and taut throughout. The one thing missing from the film is a perspective from SeaWorld, who repeatedly declined Cowperthwaite's requests for an interview. Perhaps they are simply hoping that the problem will go away if they choose to ignore it, but I hope Blackfish is seen by enough people and incites enough anger that it simply can't be ignored. The film reminded me of The Cove with its content carrying an undeniable visceral force that cuts straight to the moral heart of the issue, but it also reminded me of Grizzly Man, as it exposes the consequences of tangling with nature. Orcas are incredibly beautiful creatures who are far more intelligent and powerful than any man – what gives us the right to think that we can control them?

Friday, June 21, 2013

Before Midnight

One of the most satisfying feelings offered by cinema is the rare sense that the characters we have watched on screen have gone on living their lives beyond the confines of the story, and that we are merely dropping in to experience a fraction on it. Before Midnight is a film that delivers that feeling, as it answers the question left dangling at the end of Before Sunset and tells us that Jesse and Celine haven't left each other's side since that film's agonisingly ambiguous climactic fade-out.  In fact, they are now the parents of two little girls, while Jesse's son remains America with his estranged wife. They are eighteen years older and carrying a lot more baggage than they were when we first met them in Before Sunrise, but they are recognisably the same people that they were on that romantic night in Austria.

In a similar fashion, Before Midnight sticks rigidly to the dynamic established in its predecessors while being subtly different enough to distinguish itself from them. In each film, Richard Linklater follows Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as they stroll around a European city at a leisurely pace, talking about themselves, each other, their lives, loves and philosophies. If Before Sunset was buoyed by the optimistic spirit of first love, and Before Sunset was a more rueful film about missed connections and second chances, then Before Midnight is about what happens after that first flush of romance has faded. It's a more contentious, troubling and antagonistic film – as Jesse says to Celine of their relationship, "It's not perfect, but it's real."

This film finds Jesse and Celine in Greece, where they are spending the summer at the home of a celebrated writer who admires Jesse's novels (which, of course, are heavily drawn from his own past experiences). The Peloponnese peninsula is an idyllic setting, but there are storm clouds on the horizon. Jesse's melancholy mood after sending his son back to his ex-wife leads him to raise the possibility of moving to America so they can be closer to the boy, a possibility that Celine immediately shoots down. This first confrontation takes place in the car ride back from the airport, a conversation that largely unfolds in a single take and displays the ease with which Hawke and Delpy slip into these characters. Before Midnight is all talk, but it feels so effortless and absorbing because the way these characters talk to each other rings so true, and is so unselfconscious. They are in their own world, totally focused on each other, and that allows us to feel like voyeurs snooping in on a real relationship.

Of course, we must applaud Richard Linklater for that. In the Before films he has perfected a fluid and subtle way of guiding the characters through these long walks and talks, and of managing the imperceptible but sometimes seismic tonal shifts with an uncanny gracefulness. He knows just when to move things forward and when to cut – these films are full of unusually long scenes, but the films themselves never feel too long – and he obviously creates an environment that allows all of his actors to contribute their best work. Linklater references Rossellini and Rohmer during the course of Before Midnight, but in making this series he has crafted a singular style that deserves to be considered alongside both of those filmmakers.

The comparison with Rossellini is particularly apt, as Before Midnight bears more than a passing relationship with his great marital crisis movie Journey to Italy. Jesse and Celine might not be married, but the bonds between them are so deep – and our own connection with them is so strong – it's hard not to flinch when they begin attacking each other in the film's second half. There are rumblings of discord throughout the film, but it's still shocking to see these two lovers unleashing the resentments and frustrations that are borne from a nine-year relationship. Like the first two films, Before Midnight was co-written by Linklater and the two stars, and their equal input into the screenplay must account for the balanced arguments and multi-faceted characterisations that give this bickering such an impact. The extraordinarily well handled argument scene reminded me of nothing less than Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage, as both parties cede ground and then gain the upper hand in their argument, and we can see the virtues and the flaws in both characters. We might suspect that this is not the first time they have had such a row – Celine tells Jesse that he is always like this after sending his son back to the US – but it is delivered with a force that makes us wonder if we might actually be watching the end of this great love story.

However, the truth is that Jesse and Celine do love each other, and that depth of feeling will allow them to work out the challenges faced by their relationship, to find away to move forward together. The final scene in the film is the only one that felt slightly schematic to me – as if Linklater wanted to end on a certain note and had to slightly push things to get there – but it is a minor quibble in a film that both equals and enhances the other pictures in this remarkable trilogy. In a story that has spanned almost two decades, Linklater, Hawke and Delpy have delivered one of the most intelligent, original and convincing love stories in cinema. I don't know if we'll get another Before film nine years from now, but I'm confident that if we do happen to drop back into their lives at some point, these two people will still be glorious company. Celine and Jesse forever.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Ulrich Seidl's Paradise Trilogy


Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Faith opens with a scene of self-flagellation, and anyone familiar with this Austrian director might be justified in suggesting that watching three of his films back-to-back is tantamount to the same thing. The titles Seidl has given to his Paradise trilogy are Love, Faith and Hope, but these are not the words that one readily associates with his films – words like bleak, explicit, confrontational and provocative are more likely to be found in reviews of his work, which has drawn as many criticisms as it has plaudits over the years. Despite all this, Sunday June 16th was denoted as “Seidl Sunday” in the UK, with a handful of cinemas across the country offering a rare chance to see his trilogy in its entirety. I decided it was an opportunity not to be missed, but I must admit that I walked towards the BFI Southbank with a number of questions in my mind and a certain sense of dread in my heart. If I’m looking for paradise in the cinema, is Ulrich Seidl really the man I want to take me there?

Read the rest at Mostly Film

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Seret - The London Israeli Film Festival 2013

The Seret London Israeli Film Festival takes place at venues across London from June 9th - 16th. The programme features 25 films, documentaries and TV series from both established and emerging Israeli talent, and the lineup is eclectic enough to ensure there will be something for all tastes. Here's my take on four of the films on offer on this year's festival.

The Ballad of the Weeping Spring (Balada le'aviv ha'bohe)


The Ballad of the Weeping Spring is an unashamedly old-fashioned and straightforward crowd-pleaser, and on that basis it must be regarded as a success. There's no doubt where the film is heading, and you can almost visualise the emotionally charged finale as soon as the plot has been set in motion, but Benny Toraty is smart enough to invest the narrative with plenty of offbeat character touches and incidents. Essentially a "Let's get the band back together" romp, The Ballad of the Weeping Spring consciously nods to The Magnificent Seven as it follows the crotchety Tawila (Uri Gavriel) who is attempting to recruit musicians to perform for a former bandmate before he passes away. The film proceeds as a series of amusing vignettes, with Tawila and his gradually enlarging posse travelling from town to town en route to his ailing friend, and picking up new members for the group, often after engaging in some kind of amusing confrontation. The fact that one of these confrontations involves a jilted bride wielding a machete as she waits for her cowardly husband to come out and face the music indicates the film's tone – the humour and performances are often on the broad side. What keeps the film anchored is Gavriel's tough central turn – he has a Tommy Lee Jones-style gravitas – and the fact that Toraty shows a nimble hand in the way he balances the film's comedy with its more emotional scenes, without letting the film grow overly sentimental. Other pleasures are provided by the striking location work and frequent bursts of traditional Israeli music. It's an entertaining and ultimately satisfying package, and even if you know exactly where the film is going to end up, you don't begrudge the time you've spent getting there.

Joe +Belle


Joe + Belle is a tale of lovers on the run, but when that story has been told and re-told so many times through cinema's history, any take on the concept has to work twice as hard to rise above the dull sense of familiarity. Sadly, little about Veronica Kedar's feature debut feels fresh. The film opens with the quote "When love is not madness, it is not love," but Kedar's tactic for generating that sense of madness consists of throwing disparate elements into the mix and moving at a pace that doesn't allow them to settle. As a result, her film is a baffling collection of contrivances and inconsistencies that barely rings true for a moment. The writer/director herself stars as Joe, and we first meet her as she arrives back in Israel from Bangkok with a bagful of drugs, and we first meet Belle (Sivan Levy) when she emerges from a psychiatric hospital. Their "meet cute" occurs when Belle inexplicably decides to break into Joe's bathroom to commit suicide, and soon a mix-up involving Joe's ex-boyfriend results in a dead body on the floor. The manner in which the two girls attempt to dispose of this corpse creates one of the few scenes in the film that has rich comic potential, but Kedar has lamentable timing in this regard and that potential is frittered away. What's most bizarre about Joe + Belle is the lack of urgency the characters display as they hit the road to escape the law; we never feel the gravity of their crime or their fear of facing the consequences. The lack of humour, tension or social context (aside from mentions of Qassam rocket frequently being overheard on nearby radios) renders Joe + Belle a quite useless thing, and the romance that suddenly blossoms between the pair is laughably unconvincing, particularly after Joe's "Yuck" response when she first hears of Belle's lesbianism. Joe + Belle is full of shortcuts and easy choices, and it never ventures into the complexities that characters and a plot of this nature should throw up.

Epilogue (Hayuta and Berl)


One of the most acclaimed and talked-about films of 2012 was Michael Haneke's Amour, and it was perhaps inevitable that any other film exploring similar subject matter in the same year would be neglected. This appears to have been the case with Epilogue, but Amir Manor's beautifully observed and extremely moving drama deserves to be rediscovered. The film takes place over a single day, beginning in the morning when elderly couple Berl (Yosef Carmon) and Hayuta (Rivka Gur) are disturbed by a social worker who subjects them to a humiliating session of questions and physical trials. This is the first instance of the central characters being baffled and affronted by the modern world that exists outside their apartment, but it won't be the last, and the sight of this poverty-stricken couple attempting to maintain a sense of dignity in the face of their troubles is very affecting. Manor follows both characters as they go their separate ways throughout the day and run some errands, but their shared experience is the same, frustration and disillusionment at the way they are treated by younger generations across the city. "We're irrelevant," a weary Hayuta tells her husband later that night, and the director frequently frames his characters behind glass or through openings to suggest two people cut off from the rest of society. Epilogue has flashes of humour that help leaven the bleak tone, and there are moments of individual kindness that carry a considerable emotional impact. Above all else, it is a wonderful showcase for two veteran actors, whose wonderful onscreen chemistry suggests a whole life lived together, and a love that still burns bright.

The Gatekeepers


The Shin Bet is Israel's interior security service and until The Gatekeepers was made the six surviving former heads of this service had never been interviewed. So Dror Moreh has pulled off quite a coup by persuading them to open up for his cameras, and he has made the most of the opportunity by crafting their recollections into a gripping and eye-opening documentary.  The tale they tell is of a country in a constant state of war, and they explain in sober, illuminating detail what it takes to maintain the security of the state under such circumstances. These are hard men who are resolute in their convictions, and they don't flinch under Moreh's questions, but sometimes we see glimmers of a troubled humanity. Yuval Diskin describes being perturbed by an "unnatural" feeling even after achieving a terrorist kill that is as clean as possible, with no collateral damage, and this sense of moral ambiguity proves to be the film's most fascinating theme. Avraham Shalom dismisses any ideas of morality factoring into the war on terror, suggesting that one should regard the lack of morals in terrorists before worrying about the validity of torture. Ultimately, all six of the interviewees show their desire for a political agreement and lasting peace – "We wanted more security, we got more terror," one states – but they are pessimistic about the future and firm in their conviction that anything and everything must be done to protect Israel while the threat persists. The Gatekeepers is a fascinating study of men for whom warfare is a constant factor, and life-or-death decisions are a daily task. Moreh's beautifully edited film allows these intelligent, eloquent and formidable men to share that experience with us, and the result is a truly extraordinary documentary that lingers in the memory.