Phil on Film Index

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Philosophy of Erich von Stroheim

"I had graduated from the D.W Griffith school of film making and intended to go the Master one better as regards film realism. In real cities, not corners of them designed by Cedric Gibbons or Richard Days, but in real tree-bordered boulevards, with real street-cars, buses and automobiles, through real winding alleys, with real dirt and foulness, in the gutters as well as in real castles and palaces. I was going to people my scenes with real men, women and children, as we meet them every day in real life, in bad as well as in good taste, clean and dirty, faultless and ragged, but without exaggeration, without modification, and without the then currently popular concessions to the conventions of the stage and screen. I was going to film stories which would be believable, life-like, even if I had to make them realistic to the Nth degree. I intended to show men and women as they are all over the world, none of them perfect, with their good and bad qualities, their noble and idealistic sides and their jealous, vicious, mean and greedy sides. I was not going to compromise.

I felt that after the last war, the motion picture going public had tired of the cinematographic 'chocolate eclairs' which had been stuffed down their throats, and which had in a large degree figuratively ruined their stomachs with this overdose of saccharine in pictures. Now, I felt, they were ready for a large bowl of plebeian but honest 'corned beef and cabbage'. I felt that they had become weary of insipid Pollyanna stories with their peroxide-blonde, doll-like heroines, steeped in eternal virginity, and their hairless flat-chested sterile heroes, who were as lily-white as the heroines. I thought they could no longer bear to see the stock villains, dyed-in-the-wool, 100 per cent black, armed with a moustache, mortgage and riding crop.

I believed audiences were ready to witness real drama and real tragedy, as it happens every day in every land; real love and real hatred of real men and women who were proud of their passions. I felt that the time was ripe to present screen stories about men and women who defied with written and unwritten codes, and who took the consequences of their defiance gallantly, like many people do in real life. People who defied prejudice and jealousies, conventions and the social mores of a hypocritical society, who fought for their passions, conquered them or were conquered by them.

I knew that everything could be done with film, the only medium with which one could reproduce life as it really was. I knew also that an entertainment that mirrored life would be more entertaining than one which distorted it. The sky was the limit! Whatever a man could dream of, I could and would reproduce it in my films. I was going to metamorphose those 'movies' into art – a composite of all arts. Fight for it! And die for it, if need be!

Well, fight I did...and die...I almost did, too!"

Originally an extract from an unpublished article by Erich von Stroheim, this was later reproduced in the published Greed shooting script in 1972.

LFF 2013 - Blackwood; The Do Gooders; Gloria; The Grandmaster; How We Used to Live; The Long Way Home


If you're going to make a film about a family who move into a remote house with a dark history looking to make a fresh start, only to find themselves plagued by horrors that may or may not be the product of the lead character's psychosis, then by God you'd better bring something new to the table. Adam Wimpenny has chosen to tell that story with his debut feature Blackwood, and the whole thing feels drearily familiar. A largely insufferable Ed Stoppard plays Ben, a historian recovering from some unspecified breakdown, who takes his wife (Sophia Myles) and young son to live in a spooky country manor where he almost instantly starts hearing things going bump in the night. Ben immediately suspects that all of these scary happenings have something to do with the PTSD-suffering gardener (Russell Tovey) or the shady local vicar (Paul Kaye), while his wife fears that her husband's fragile grip on his sanity is starting to slip. She should be more concerned about the film losing its fragile grip on the audience's attention, as the various scares and jumps start appearing with the regularity of a metronome, negating their own effect and leeching the film of tension. Wimpenny's direction of his own screenplay is efficient but rote. The film just sort of plods along without any real sense of purpose, never developing the characters fully enough to make us care about their plight, and the director makes a couple of decisions late on that lead to him shooting himself in the foot. So much importance is placed on the ambiguity of whether the visions Ben is seeing are simply the product of his damaged mental state, but when we see something behind him, or when Ben's son witnesses a ghostly figure, that notion is completely destroyed. The film becomes a rote box-ticking exercise in its final moments, as Wimpenny links together everything we've seen in the build-up to the climax, but my interest in the film's sense of mystery had long since evaporated. You've seen all of this ground covered before, and you've seen it covered with a good deal more imagination and style.

The Do Gooders

When watching a film at the London Film Festival one expects a certain degree of filmmaking competence, but The Do Gooders is amateur hour. Chloe Ruthven's film begins with her telling us about her grandparents, who were aid workers in Palestinian refugee camps, which is what prompted her to travel to Palestine, but that thread is swiftly dropped as Ruthven gets distracted by other potential stories. She meets gap year students volunteering in the region and spends some time in a German-run cinema showing politically charged films, but her lack of focus is exasperating. The Do Gooders only settles into some kind of coherent narrative when Ruthven hooks up with Lubna, a Palestinian activist with whom she has a tetchy relationship. Together, they begin to explore the issue of western intervention in Palestine, and to be fair to Ruthven they do touch upon some interesting complexities surrounding the issue of how aid is distributed in country. Frustratingly, however, Ruthven's journalistic rigour is as lacking as her cinematic sense, and she fails to exploit any of the potentially explosive topics that falls into her lap. The Do Gooders falls apart in front of our eyes, as Ruthven's relationship with Lubna breaks down, and she ends up turning the camera on herself while she sobs and complains that nobody appears to be listening to her. This is an aggravatingly inept film, but it almost turns into something interesting by accident, when you consider that the problems surrounding westerners sticking their nose into Palestinian issues might be best represented by a useless UK filmmaker blundering into situations she doesn't understand. The Do Gooders may actually be a brilliant work of self-satire, but given the total lack of self-awareness that Chloe Ruthven exhibits, I doubt she realises it.

Eastern Boys

The eastern boys of the title in Robin Campillo's second feature (coming nine years after his first) are teenage immigrants who are first viewed in Gare du Nord, weaving through the crowds as they elude security and look for potential marks. One of these young men catches the eye of middle-aged businessman Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin), who offers Marek (Kirill Emelyanov) €50 for sex. This furtive offer turns into a nightmare for the meek Daniel, when Marek's whole gang turns up at his apartment the next day and begins emptying it of its contents as he watches helplessly, but while this may be the first time Campillo's screenplay wrong-foots the audience it is far from the last. Every time I thought I had the measure of the movie, the writer/director would make a bold and unexpected choice, and what's impressive is how smoothly he handles these sharp transitions. As soon as I saw how Campillo directed the home invasion scene, I knew I was watching director in complete command of his material, and that feeling never went away throughout Eastern Boys. While we might question the plausibility of certain developments, Campillo's confident direction and the entirely convincing performances will soon win over any sceptics. When Eastern Boys focuses on the burgeoning romance between Daniel and Marek, Campillo gives us something that feels tender and true while simultaneously keeping us on guard, wondering who is exploiting whom here, and anticipating a sting in the tail. One explanation for such nervousness is the presence of Daniil Vorobyov as the leader of Marek's gang, whose charismatic but chilling performance brings an added element of danger and unpredictability to the film. When Eastern Boys turns into a nail-biting thriller in its final third, Campillo constantly skirts the edge of implausibility but he never topples over.  Eastern Boys is cool, elegant and unsettling, and it succeeds at whatever genre Campillo decides to turn it towards and it offers one of the most unusual and imaginative portraits of immigrant life in contemporary Europe. Here's hoping that we don't have to wait the best part of a decade for the next film from this very talented filmmaker.


Given the continued reluctance of mainstream cinema to create interesting lead roles for women – let alone women of a certain age – we should be thankful for filmmakers from further afield who remind us of the riches that can be found in such tales. Sebastián Lelio's Gloria is the story of a divorcée in her late 50s (Paulina García) who is tired of being alone and spends many of her nights searching the clubs and bars of Santiago for her Mr Right. Gloria is not necessarily looking for love or a long-term partner (one of the rare pleasures offered by Lelio's film is the frank way in which it respects the sexual appetites of its ageing characters) but she seems to have struck gold when she meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández). It's giving little away to say that things don't exactly work out between the pair, and Lelio enjoys involving us in the tangled situations that Gloria finds herself in, while withholding his own judgement on her behaviour. The film unfolds in a slightly episodic fashion but each of those individual episodes is absorbing and every scene is illuminated by García's astounding central performance as the title character. She totally embraces the character's contradictions – Gloria appears timid and mousy but has a voracious, hot-tempered side – and she creates a totally convincing portrait of a complex, fascinating woman. Next to her, the evasive and mysterious Rodolfo can't help but appear to be something of a cipher, and the suspicion always lingers that he exists as little more than a catalyst, with his actions only serving to push Gloria down a certain path. That's the only area of the film that shows evidence of the director pulling strings, however. For the most part, Lelio's handling of the material displays a light comic touch and an emotional sensitivity that is most refreshing, and he pulls off a couple of big moments towards the end of the film that should cement Gloria's status as a hugely satisfying crowd-pleaser.

The Grandmaster

For years, the London Film Festival Surprise Film has followed the same format. After a brief intro that revealed nothing, the film would begin and we would only realise what we had bought a ticket for when the title appears on screen. This year was different. Clare Stewart began the evening by introducing a video clip of Wong Kar-wai welcoming us, which informed us that The Grandmaster would be the first foreign-language Surprise Film that I can recall, but which version of Wong's film were we about to watch? That question was answered when Harvey Weinstein appeared from stage left to promise us a great "ass-kicking" experience. So, we saw the controversial US-edit of The Grandmaster rather than Wong's own version, which has screened in China and other festivals around the world, and what a strange picture it is. The film is a cluttered and incoherent biopic of the martial arts legend Ip Man (effectively portrayed by Tony Leung), with the expositional title cards inserted for US audiences totally destroying whatever sense of flow and rhythm the picture might have had in its original state. On-screen captions introduce every character and the climactic intertitles make far too much of the young Bruce Lee's fleeting presence in the film – presumably under the impression that this recognisable name will mean bums on seats in the US. It's all very insulting and a cursory glance at the comparisons between cuts that are available online reveals what a travesty the Weinstein version is, but the film still contains moments of beauty that deliver transcendence amid the confusion. Many of the film's highlights involve Zhang Ziyi, whose performance as Gong Er has a fire and grace that recalls her great work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and whose revenge-based narrative makes her a far more compelling protagonist than the nominal lead Ip Man. Her fight on a train platform is a thrilling piece of work, even if Weinstein's determination to cut to the chase ensures that it – and many other scenes of conflict – is just dropped into the picture insufficient context. What a curious picture this is; it possesses a style and elegance that recalls Wong's finest work, but it's all diluted by its presence in a broken, compromised piece of storytelling. I'm not sure what Weinstein's tactic is here. Some viewers will be prompted to but the director's cut on blu-ray, while more will simply write the film off as a mess. The LFF's decision to side with the producer over the artist is a troubling one.

How We Used to Live

"Press 0 if you're calling from outside London" Ian McShane recites, before pausing and asking "but why would you be outside London?" That line typifies McShane's wry narration of How We Used to Live, a superb assembly of archive footage that tries to be nothing more than a love letter to the nation's capital. Paul Kelly's latest collaboration with St. Etienne plays like an essay film, but it's an essay film that isn't building to a definite argument. It's more of a meditation on how people live within this great city, and how life has changed across the four decades that it covers. Kelly has raided the BFI national archives to find a treasure trove of footage from the 1950s up to the 1980s, which he has edited into a swift and enchanting portrait of life in London. The film moves in passages, revelling in the way the city reveals a different side of itself after dark before marvelling at how it seems to be scrubbed clean to start every morning afresh, and charting the economic and social changes that subtly but irrevocably leave their mark on the surrounding landscape. Some parts of the city appear to be unyielding while others are unrecognisable – notably areas on the banks of the Thames, once desolate and now thriving – as Kelly depicts London as a living, breathing entity, always shifting its form. The score by Pete Wiggs is alternately jaunty, romantic and melancholy, and it always complements the onscreen imagery, while McShane's laconic commentary is a source of great humour. Of course, your mileage with this kind of filmmaking may vary depending on your appreciation for essay films and your affinity for London, but I could watch this kind of thing for hours and if anything I actually felt a little short-changed by the film's 70-minute running time. How We Used to Live is a poetic celebration of the city I love, and I found it irresistible.

The Long Way Home

The central narrative of The Long Way Home largely involves only seven characters, but it becomes clear from the opening minutes of Alphan Eseli's film that there is in fact an eight character that will play a major role in the drama – the landscape. As we see a man attempt to pull his horse forward, only to see the animal collapse in the snow, we immediately get a sense that life in this bleak, wintry environment is a constant battle to stay alive. The film takes place in the mountains of Eastern Anatolia, where 90,000 Turks troops froze to death in their fight against the Russians in 1915, and it is through this terrain that Saci Bey (Ugur Polat) is attempting to transport a mother (Nergis Öztürk) and her young daughter (Myraslava Kostyeva) to safety. When they reach a seemingly abandoned village they soon meet more survivors – a pair of Armenian peasants and two starving, wounded soldiers – where the film engages in a taut exploration of camaraderie and paranoia. This is Eseli's directorial debut but he tells his story with the calm assurance of a master filmmaker. The first half slowly draws us into the intimate moral drama between his small cast of characters before changing direction with an increasingly engrossing second hour. The director serves up some shocking and ironic developments but they feel entirely organic and an essential part of his superbly structured screenplay. Hayk Kirakosyan's widescreen cinematography emphasises the imposing nature of the endless snow-capped peaks but he is just as adept in the cramped, fire-lit confines of the shelter these survivors take refuge in. The Long Way Home is an astounding war film, one that grows deeper and richer with every step that it takes towards the surprising and deeply moving climax.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

LFF 2013 - 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is a film full of barbaric acts, but the image that has remained most prominent in my thoughts since I saw the film is a simple close-up on a bar of soap. When slave girl Patsey (the astonishing newcomer Lupita Nyong'o) leaves the plantation to acquire the soap, she is whipped savagely upon her return at the behest of the plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender) in a scene of almost unbearable ferocity that unfolds in a single take. When the violence has finally abated, and her hands are untied, she drops the soap that she has clung onto throughout her ordeal. Patsey wanted nothing more than to bathe and to rid herself of the stench that is making her gag, but that simple privilege was denied her, and instead she was punished for her insolence.

In this scene and others, 12 Years a Slave shows us how slavery de-humanised those who fell victim to it. The film's physical violence will surely draw plenty of attention, but Steve McQueen never lets us overlook the emotional, physical and spiritual violence that the back characters in the film are forced to endure. We see black men and women standing naked in a room as they are inspected by potential owners like livestock; we see a group of slaves forced to clap along as their overseer (Paulo Dano) sings a song entitled Run, Nigger, Run; We see a mother (Adepero Oduye) succumb to grief after being separated from her two children, only to be coldly reassured by the plantation owner's wife that she will soon forget her offspring. What's telling about many of these scenes is how easily they come to the white characters and how the degradation of black people is viewed an everyday part of life; simply the natural order of things. Even Brad Pitt's abolition-favouring character liberally refers to "niggers" in his speech, and two circus promoters talk about one of their attractions being an exotic specimen "from darkest Africa" as they sit in a restaurant with Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

12 Years a Slave has been adapted from Northup's memoir, which he published in 1854, and the story he tells is so incredible it seems remarkable that it hasn't been brought to the screen before now. Northup was an educated free man living with his family in New York in 1841. A talented musician and a respected member of the local community, he seemed safely ensconced from the horrors of the slave trade, but on an trip to Washington he was given drink until he passed out and when he awoke he was in chains, his former identity having been stripped from him. Northup changes hands on a number of occasions during the film, from slave trader Freeman (Paul Giamatti) – who claims his sentimentality "extends no further than a coin" – to plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose own sense of inner conflict over the ownership of slaves is interesting and perhaps underexplored, before landing with the brutal, scripture-spouting Epps.

It is during the time spent with Ford that McQueen stages one of the film's most memorable sequences, as Northup is punished for an infraction by being hung from a tree, able to keep himself alive by standing on the tips of his toes. For hours he languishes there, as slaves go about their business in the background, none daring to even acknowledge him never mind consider cutting him down. Eventually, one runs up to him with a drink of water, before scurrying nervously away. Throughout 12 Years a Slave, McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt find simple but powerful images that speak volumes about the situation and the characters' positions within it. McQueen's undeniably potent sense of visual composition serves the fluid, increasingly involving narrative beautifully here. 12 Years a Slave is artfully crafted with scenes that exhibit remarkable technical virtuosity but it is all aimed at drawing the viewer into the story rather than drawing attention to the technique. There's something rather old-fashioned and classical about the manner in which 12 Years a Slave's story unfolds, but its emotional power builds quietly and without recourse to sentimentality, almost sneaking up on the viewer. McQueen's dispassionate approach is perfectly attuned to this material.

A lot of the film's power comes from Chiwetel Ejiofor's central performance. McQueen gets so much from his face alone, with his expression reflecting the acts of inhumanity that take place in front of him and showing us his own inner turmoil as he suppresses his intelligence and true feelings simply to survive. Ejiofor leads an exceptional ensemble of actors, all of whom superbly portray characters affected and compromised in some way by the sin of slavery, but it Northup's extraordinary redemptive journey that gives the film its satisfying and emotionally overwhelming impact. "Your story is amazing, and in no good way," Northup is told towards the end of the film, after revealing what he has been through. It truly is an amazing story, and the best thing one can say about the manner in which Steve McQueen has brought it to the screen is that he has done that story justice.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

LFF 2013 - The Great Passage; Kon-Tiki; Of Good Report; Parkland; Teenage; We Are the Best!

The Great Passage

Yûya Ishii has become something of an LFF regular in recent years with his comedies Sawako Decides and Mitsuko Delivers. I've enjoyed his films while simultaneously being slightly frustrated by them – there's always a point where his manic comedic style trips itself up – but it appears that the move to a big studio project has given Ishii the firm foundations that he has so desperately needed. The Great Passage is based on a novel by Shiwon Miura, which has been adapted for the screen by Kensaku Watanabe, and perhaps that's why the film's structure feel so much more solid than Ishii's previous efforts. This is by some distance Ishii's most ambitious film as a director, but being freed up from writing duties has apparently given him the confidence required to make it his most accomplished work too. The Great Passage is the tale of a small team at a publishing firm who spend 15 years researching and compiling a new dictionary, with the film loosely structured in two parts. The first half of the film deals with the tentative romance between cripplingly shy bookworm Majime (Ryuhei Matsuda) and the woman (Aoi Miyazaki) to whom he can't express his feelings without reeling off the various definitions of each word. The second half of the film deals more with the business of putting the dictionary together, with looming deadlines and last-minute hitches allowing Ishii to generate a surprising amount of tension. Both the humorous and dramatic aspects of the film work perfectly because all of the humour and drama has its basis in character. As well as the dedicated introvert Majime, there's his laid-back colleague Nishioka (a hilarious Joe Odagiri) and the elderly head of the programme Matsumoto (Go Kato), whose advancing years make him wonder if he'll be around to see the finished product. The Great Passage is very funny without ever being too broad and it's very moving without ever slipping into sentimentality, and there are a number of fascinating themes under the surface that lend the story additional depth. It is a film about the love of language, pride in a job well done, and about the importance of not letting life pass you by in your determination to reach a goal. There's also the fascinating nuts-and-bolts business of how exactly words are chosen and defined, which is a lot more interesting than it sounds and is often the source of unexpected comedy; although maybe we shouldn't be so surprised given that Ball of Fire – one of the greatest comedies of all time – explored similar territory. Perhaps lexicographers are a lot funnier than we've ever given them credit for.


The story of Thor Heyerdahl seems tailor-made for the big screen. In 1947, this Norwegian ethnographer and a crew of five men built a wooden raft and used it to sail from Peru to the Polynesia, with the aim of proving that South Americans could have discovered the islands centuries earlier. Their subsequent adventure has passed into legend, but little of the drama, danger and excitement of that passages has made it onto the screen in Kon-Tiki. Instead, this film – a long-gestating passion project for British producer Jeremy Thomas – has been streamlined into a drearily formulaic narrative structure with every detail being presented in the most simplistic of ways. Heyerdahl is played with plenty of gusto by by the lanky, grinning Pål Sverre Hagen, but we learn little about him beyond some brief, expository notes, and a couple of rote scenes with his long-suffering wife. We learn even less about his almost interchangeable crewmates – this one is a photographer, this one is a fridge salesman – or their motivation for joining him on this foolhardy mission, and it's hard to feel too involved in their fates. I never felt like their lives were truly in danger despite the stormy conditions, their rickety craft and the constant presence of sharks, because those scenes of peril are handled in the most perfunctory "And then this happened" manner by the co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg. There's no sense of life here, there's none of the imagination required to make this story breathe on the screen. All of the dialogue simply serves the purpose of sharing information – what on earth did these men discuss at sea for over 100 days? When the caption "Day 101" appears on screen, announcing the imminent end of their voyage, I felt like the filmmakers had jumped forward simply because they had run out of ideas. Where is the passion to make these men come to life? My suspicion that Rønning and Sandberg were using this project as nothing more than a calling card was confirmed by a ridiculous CGI-assisted shot halfway through the film that served no purpose beyond drawing attention to the flashy direction. It seemed to work – they're now in Hollywood working on the fifth (fifth!) Pirates of the Caribbean film – and a comfortable life of hackwork lies ahead, but they've wasted a fine story here.

Of Good Report

When a film opens with a man screaming in agony as he pulls out broken teeth that have somehow become embedded in his scalp, it's safe to assume that the picture you're about to watch is not going to be an easy one to sit through. That proves to be the case with Of Good Report, a South African film that made international headlines earlier this year when it was temporarily banned in that country for child pornography, despite the underage character in the film being played by a 23 year-old actress. Now that the dust has settled on that controversy, we can see Of Good Report for what it is – an interesting and promising piece of work from a young filmmaker that is nevertheless crippled by some of Jahmil X.T. Qubeka's storytelling choices. His central character is a school teacher in a rural community who is recovering from some kind of war-related trauma in the Congo. Parker (Mothusi Magano) is a quiet, bespectacled introvert who hides secret passions, which he unleashes one night when he meets teenage temptress Nolitha (Petronella Tshuma) in a bar and takes her back to his shack for sex. He is horrified to discover the next morning that she is actually 16 years-old and one of his students, but the pair continue their affair, occasionally even flirting with disaster by having sex on school premises and coming within inches of being discovered in one of the film's standout scenes. Parker's love for Nolitha eventually manifests itself in obsessive jealousy and murderous impulses, but it's hard to take anything this character does seriously because of the absurd choice Qubeka has made to not let his protagonist speak during the entire film. He can speak – we see the other end of a phone conversation, for example – we just don't hear it for ourselves, and the contortions that Qubeka puts himself through to maintain this silence, including numerous scenes in which he is cut off just as he's about to open his mouth, are self-defeating. I can't see the purpose of such a tactic, which achieves nothing more than to distract from the content of each scene, and it leaves a black hole in the centre of the picture where there is supposed to be a complex character. Magano is not a strong enough actor to convey Parker's multitudes with his face alone, and he spends too much of the film gaping gormlessly. With this problem scuppering the picture early on, Of Good Report ultimately feels unnecessarily sadistic as it degenerates into a series of barbaric sequences, which is a terrible shame as Qubeka certainly shows enough flair to suggest he's someone worth keeping an eye on. He uses the black-and-white widescreen frame to craft a number of undeniably vivid images, and he draws some strong performances from the actors surrounding Magano, including the excellent Petronella Tshuma.


John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22nd 1963, and with the 50th anniversary of that date fast approaching I suppose it was inevitable that a film would be made to commemorate/exploit it. The film we have been given – for our sins – is Parkland, an exasperatingly shallow and muddled attempt to recreate the events of that day as seen through the eyes of people tangentially connected to JFK's death. We meet Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), whose 8mm film remains seared in the memory of all who saw it, but there are many lesser-known characters sharing their perspectives here too. Zac Efron and Colin Hanks are the doctors who tried to resuscitate JFK at Parkland Memorial Hospital; Marcia Gay Harden is a nurse; Jackie Earle Haley is a really creep priest; Ron Livingston is an FBI agent; James Badge Dale is Lee Harvey Oswald's brother. Anyone who saw Emilio Estevez's Bobby in 2006 might be feeling an encroaching feeling of dread in the pit of their stomach right now, and sadly Parkland does turn out to be little more than Bobby 2: Electric Boogaloo. Writer/director Peter Landesman seems to have no clear sense of what the story is here, or what point he is trying to make by dropping in on these people, and much of Parkland just consists of obvious reconstructions of what took place, with Barry Ackroyd shaking his camera for all it's worth to suggest some kind of verisimilitude. Unfortunately, any attempt at sustaining a you-are-there realism is doomed by lines like "Nice day for a motorcade" or Landesman's obvious confusion over how exactly to use the most iconic figures in the story (why do we hear Lyndon B. Johnson's inauguration as a scratchy recording? Why have Jackie Kennedy in the scene at all if you're going to try and hide her in the background?), but the film's biggest obstacle is the simple fact that none of the characters are developed enough to make us see past the actors playing them. This is bad news for a couple of them in particular. Zac Efron is left stranded in an awful scene where he tries to beat the dead JFK back into life, Jacki Weaver's pantomime turn as Oswald's mother is excruciating for every minute she's on screen, and Billy Bob Thornton is reduced to shouting at various people in corridors ("This was NOT supposed to happen!"). Parkland is apparently adapted from Vincent Bugliosi's excellent book Four Days in November, but that was a deep and complex work of reportage that compiled all available facts; it deserves better than to be associated with a film so half-baked, inert and tasteless.


The archive material that much of Teenage consists of is so good it makes me despair that the filmmakers didn't put more faith in it. Instead, Matt Wolf's documentary is a weird hybrid of old and new, with clips from films, television, newsreels and other sources being spliced together with recreations artificially scratched to look like found footage, and the two types of film mix like oil and water. This documentary aims to explore the genesis and development of the teenager – a relatively new concept – during the first decades of the 20th century. Beginning with the outlawing of child labour, Wolf and his team have assembled an extraordinary variety of materials that show adolescents embracing their newfound freedom. We are introduced to the 1920s "Bright Young Things" in London, the Swing Kids of Germany and the US Jitterbug craze, before a darker side to the teenage experience emerges with the rise of the Hitler Youth in the 1930s. As we move from one area to another, the voiceover narration changes hands between four narrators (Ben Wishaw, Jena Malone, Julia Hummer and Jessie Usher), whose reading of diary excerpts and other first-hand testimonies attempt to give us a subjective perspective on what it was like to be inside these movements as they happened. It all sounds like a much better idea in theory than it turns out to be in practice, as the filmmakers' approach frequently left me feeling uneasy rather than enlightened. The lack of attribution provided for the text that forms the voiceover makes it too often feel more like a script that has been written than a genuine sentiment taken from the mouths of real teens, and the recreated footage that Wolf uses to highlight these individual tales sticks out like a sore thumb. Teenage feels terminally confused about what point it is trying to make and it ends up failing to examine any aspect of its vast subject in a satisfying way. It feels like a primer on the subject rather than a proper exploration, and one hopes that Jon Savage's book Teenage: The Creation of Youth, on which this film is based, offers much more insight than this frustratingly flimsy effort.

We Are the Best!

We Are the Best! is very much the work of the man who made Show Me Love and Together, and it's good to have him back. After making those two films – and the bleaker, but still brilliant Lilja 4-Ever – Lukas Moodysson swerved into nihilism with the ugly double-bill of A Hole in My Heart and Container. Those pictures were followed by talk of a premature retirement, and although he returned to filmmaking with Mammoth in 2009, this is the first film in over a decade that actually feels like a Lukas Moodysson film. It allows him once more to display his uncanny ability to draw natural, playful and entirely convincing performances out of untried young actors, and to navigate the turbulent emotional territory of life at the cusp of those difficult teenage years. Adapted from his wife's graphic novel, We Are the Best! is the story of 13 year-old best friends Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin), a pair of wannabe punks in 1982 Sweden whose musical ability sadly doesn't match their enthusiasm. Nevertheless, they are inspired to write a political song based on their hatred of their PE teacher (sample lyric: "People in Africa are dying, but you only care about balls flying!"), and they team up with devout Christian wallflower Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) – who, unlike them, can play an instrument – to form a band. That's pretty much all there is to We Are the Best!, which is a lightweight effort in comparison to his previous work, but it's hard to dismiss a film that's so infectiously enjoyable. Moodysson gives his girls the opportunity to create a friendship and an us-against-the-world mentality that feels entirely true, and his nuanced handling of teenage angst is evident in the way he handles the jealousies and insecurities that arise when a group of boys enter the picture. The perfect judgement he shows in the moments makes me wish that he'd go a bit deeper, and take the opportunity to add a little more depth and complexity to the film. For example, the reaction of Hedvig's mother to her daughter's sudden transformation is glided over in a single scene, when such a situation would surely be a source of enormous drama within such a devout household. Nevertheless, such quibbles are greatly outweighed by the pleasures that We Are the Best! provides; pleasures that Lukas Moodysson can deliver in a way that few other directors can. This may not be his best, but it's the closest he has come for many years.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

LFF 2013 - Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips is a near-perfect marriage of filmmaker and material. Paul Greengrass began his career in the world of documentaries, and both his subsequent fiction films and true-life tales have all shared the same determination to bring a sense of ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy to the story being told, to make us feel as if we are right there in the midst of the action. The second half of Captain Phillips largely takes place within the cramped confines of a small lifeboat, inhabited by five men – four of whom are armed – and with the tension and terror escalating with every passing minute. Some filmmakers might struggle to remain composed in such surroundings, but Greengrass is in his element.

It does take a while for the picture to find its sea legs, though. The opening scenes are clunky and expositional, and I'm not sure what purpose is served by the conversation Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) has with his wife (Catherine Keener in a bizarrely negligible role) about how tough the modern world is. There's something rather lumpy and shapeless about Billy Ray's screenplay in its early stages, but the film becomes a much more engaging proposition as soon as the giant freighter ship Maersk Alabama sets sail for Mombasa. This is the ship that was boarded by four Somali pirates in 2009, leading to a tense hostage situation that was eventually resolved by the intervention of US Navy SEALs, and Ray has smartly compressed the real-life events into a gripping narrative that takes off as soon as the pirates appear.

The four pirates are led by a young man named Muse, who is played by a first-time Somali-born actor named Barkhad Abdi. Gaunt and watchful, Abdi is a mesmerising screen presence, exuding a sense of fearlessness and menace as soon as he steps on board the ship, and engaging in some absorbing one-on-one standoffs with Hanks. The film draws parallels between these two captains, one young and one old, from vastly different backgrounds, and both trying to gain the advantage in this life-or-death power struggle. The first half of the film plays as a game of cat-and-mouse, as Phillips attempts to improvise ways to distract the pirates, and to protect his crew who are hidden in the tanker's various dark corners, while Muse's suspicion increases and the anger of his fellow pirates grows. Hanks and Abdi make their confrontations sizzle, but the film still lacks the sense of intimate danger and urgency that I was anticipating.

Captain Phillips really finds the unpredictable explosiveness that defines Greengrass at his best when the captain is taken hostage by the pirates in that tiny vessel, and the hyperactive handheld camerawork of Barry Ackroyd makes us feel the desperation and knife-edge tension within that location. Working seamlessly together, Greengrass, Ackroyd and editor Christopher Rouse create a sense of chaos while never allowing us to lose our sense of what is happening to whom, and where. In the second half of Captain Phillips, Greengrass orchestrates action both within the lifeboat and on the deck of the warships from which the Navy will launch their assault, and with each cut he ratchets up the tension and emotion.

A lot of the film's emotion comes from Tom Hanks too. His performance here presents Captain Phillips as a pragmatic, resourceful individual whose mind is always racing to analyse a situation and work out what the best course of action might be. Even when he is in a high-pressure situation, with a gun pointed at his head and people screaming at him from every angle, we can see Hanks' mind at work behind his eyes – looking for a strategy, pondering the right words to say, figuring out how to survive. However, all of Phillips' experiences gradually take their toll and the cumulative emotional weight of what he has been through eventually spills over in the film's final five minutes, in one of the most extraordinary pieces of acting Hanks has ever produced. It is this climax that elevates Captain Phillips from an exemplary piece of thriller filmmaking into something much deeper and more resonant.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

LFF 2013 - Enough Said

Since making her debut with Walking and Talking in 1996, Nicole Holofcener has been telling female-centred stories that are notable for their wit, intelligence and warmth. Despite the consistently high standard of her work, Holofcener remains one of American cinema's best-kept secrets, with her work failing to find the audience that it deserves. Her new film Enough Said will probably receive more attention that all of her previous films combined, which is a pleasing state of affairs but I wish it were under happier circumstances. This film marks one of the final screen appearances for the late James Gandolfini, and for this reason a whole new audience is likely to encounter Nicole Holofcener's work for the first time.

What they will discover is a film that bears the hallmarks of her previous films, but which is also something new. Holofcener's pictures to date have been ensemble films built around a single theme, whereas Enough Said is much more narrative-driven, with the whole film hinging on a sitcom-style premise. Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is an LA-based masseuse getting back into the dating game some years after her divorce. She meets Albert (Gandolfini) at a party and, despite a lack of initial attraction, the pair begin seeing each other, with their relationship being built on a shared sense of humour and worldview. Their first date is Holofcener at her best, as she allows us to simply spend time in the company of her two lead actors, enjoying their very funny exchanges and Louis-Dreyfus's infectious laughter. I could have happily watched a whole movie that consisted of nothing more than Holofcener's characters hanging out and trading quips, but the plot soon throws a spanner in the works.

When Eva realises that Albert is the loutish ex-husband that her new client Marianne (Holofcener stalwart Catherine Keener) spends their sessions complaining bitterly about, she decides to keep the revelation to herself. Instead she takes the opportunity to learn about her new partner's flaws, but this information soon starts to warp her own perspective on Albert's behaviour and begins to poison their happiness. When things inevitably come to a head, as we know it must, it feels like Holofcener is adhering to convention in a way that feels contrived and strained. Where I was enjoying the experience of being in these characters' company, I suddenly felt distracted by the machinations of the script and started anticipating predictable story beats.

This is not really material that plays to the director's strengths but she manages to use it as a framework through which she can examine the way people approach relationships and attempt to use prior experiences to protect themselves against potential future heartbreak. It doesn't feel like Enough Said has the weight or incisiveness of some of her earlier work, but if this is to be seen as a straightforward romantic comedy then it certainly feels funnier, smarter and truer than almost any other recent entry in the genre. Surrounding the central narrative there is Holofcener's usual brand of superbly performed character-based comedy, involving the inability of Eva's friend (Toni Collette) to fire her maid or Eva's relationship with her daughter (Tracey Fairaway) and her daughter's best friend (Tavi Gevinson). These well-observed aspects of the script help to alleviate its occasionally tortured adherence to convention.

Above all else, Enough Said is a triumph of against-type casting. Despite being a consistently terrific presence on TV over the past two decades, Julia Louis-Dreyfus can't have been high on many lists of potential feature film leads, but she gives a sparkling performance here and the chemistry she shares with Gandolfini is magic. Of course, watching James Gandolfini in this role is a bittersweet experience, but his portrayal of the gentle and vulnerable Albert gives him the opportunity to play notes that few other directors have asked of him, and it reaffirms that this was a truly great whom we have lost far too soon.

LFF 2013 – Adore; Becoming Traviata; The Congress; Durban Poison; Hello Carter; Jeune et jolie

Some highs and lows from the LFF's early press screenings.


This week I saw four words that were enough to make my blood run cold – "Directed by Anne Fontaine." As soon as I saw this credit appear on screen my mind flashed back to Nathalie..., Fontaine's excruciating 2003 picture, which was enough to ensure that I would never consciously sit through another of her films. I assumed I'd be safe with this Australian-set drama, but no, The Fontaine Touch is in full effect here, bringing her familiar po-faced pretentiousness to this extraordinarily dim-witted tale of sexual shenanigans. Adore stars Naomi Watts and Robin Wright as Lil and Roz, two mothers who have been friends since childhood and still see each other every day. They share a close bond with their 18 year-old sons Ian and Tom (Xavier Samuel and James Frecheville), which is tested to the limit when Ian has sex with Roz, and Tom reciprocates with Lil. After briefly paying lip service to the fact that they have "crossed a line," all four participants quickly agree to carry on with this situation, a decision that never rings true and grows more implausible with every passing minute; but while this premise might suggest farce, everyone involved in Adore is taking it so seriously. Adapted by Christopher Hampton from a Doris Lessing story, Adore is never more than a surface-level look at the emotions that an arrangement like this might throw up, with Fontaine being curiously reluctant to deal with any potentially explosive dramatic moments. A prime example of this dramatic reticence involves Roz's husband (played by the far-too-good-for-this Ben Mendelsohn), who is glibly written out of the movie, with his reaction to his wife's infidelity with her best friend's son occurring off screen. The thing that really kills Adore, however, is the fact that it features four of the most boring people you could ever imagine meeting. Aside from a few trite scenes at their place of work and some laughably unconvincing romantic interests, these characters seem to have no life outside of this foursome, and by the end of the film most audiences will have arrived at the opinion that these four dullards deserve each other.

Becoming Traviata

How much you get out of Philippe Béziat's Becoming Traviata may depend on how interested you are in what goes on behind the scenes of a large-scale theatrical production. The film opens with shots of theatregoers taking their seats and final preparations being made for the show, but we never see anything from the performance itself. Instead, Béziat documents the endless rounds of rehearsals and fine-tuning that take place in the build-up to the big show – the fact that he chooses to include shots of tools, buckets and paintbrushes rather than any of the glamour of opening night quickly clues you in to the director's main area of interest. He's keen to explore the nuts and bolts of theatrical performance, and so Becoming Traviata mostly consists of long sequences in a bare rehearsal room, with the large ensemble turning up every day in casual clothes to work on their physical and vocal performances. Every aspect of the production is carefully attended to by director Jean-François Sivadier and conductor Louis Langrée, but the most fascinating scenes in Becoming Traviata focus on one relationship in particular. In this 2011 production, the lead role was taken by the acclaimed French actress Natalie Dessay, and Béziat's films shows her working closely with Sivadier to develop her performance; taking his advice on board, sometimes questioning or disagreeing with his methods, and gradually getting to the place she wants to be by opening night. It is a compelling and insightful portrait of a director/performer relationship, and it gives the film a narrative arc that prevents it from feeling formless. Béziat's style is detached and unintrusive, and comparable to Frederick Wiseman (who has also made a number of films on the subject of performance) in the way he allows us to simply watch as events unfold in front of us, without any interviews, commentary, captions or music to come between us and the subject. Some viewers will find it to be repetitive and boring, but there are intriguing nuances and details to be found throughout the film and the picture is fluidly - even musically - edited. It is a shame, however, that we don't see anything of the performances itself. I understand why Béziat made that choice, but having spent so much time watching this show come together, we might feel justified in hoping to see the fruits of their labour.

The Congress

The Congress is certainly not the film I would have anticipated from Ari Folman to follow his harrowing and deeply personal animated documentary Waltz With Bashir. Folman has chosen to adapt Stanislav Lem's novel The Futurological Congress into a Hollywood satire that bears more than a passing resemblance to Andrew Niccol's S1m0ne. Thankfully, The Congress is a more accomplished proposition than that 2003 misfire – at least early on  largely thanks to the unexpected but inspired casting of Robin Wright as herself in the lead role. The film opens with the actress being berated by her agent (Harvey Keitel) for ruining her career with "lousy choices, lousy movies and lousy men." Now deep into her 40's, and with a son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) suffering from degenerative sight and hearing loss, Wright's prospects in Hollywood are looking bleak. She is offered a lifeline by sleazy Miramount head honcho Danny Huston, who wants to create a computer-generated version of her that the studio can use at their will while she enjoys an early retirement, and despite initially fighting against it, she eventually acquiesces. This is quite broad stuff but it's sharply acted and Folman makes his points about the shallowness of Hollywood and the dilemmas facing female stars in a pointed, humorous fashion. He also does a pretty good job of mapping out this futuristic filmmaking territory, building to a show-stopping scene in which Wright actually goes through the motion capture process, but this is where The Congress falls apart. Twenty years later, Wright returns to Miramount to renew her contract, but the studio is now situated within an animated zone, for some reason, and so Wright becomes an animated avatar of herself and enters an environment that appears to have been cooked up by Ralph Bakshi on an acid trip. This is where we spend the second half of the picture, and after the novelty of the film's new aesthetic wears off its flaws become too glaring to ignore. Folman is telling a story about the cult of celebrity and Hollywood as an opiate of the masses, distracting us from the reality of our lives, but the messages get increasingly muddled as we strain to work out what is happened to Wright in this world, the rules of which are never satisfyingly explained. She has a brief affair with a doctor (Jon Hamm, although he's a dead ringer for Adrien Brody) which is played as a grand romantic tragedy, but it's impossible to feel anything for their relationship, and Folman similarly fudges the supposed emotional weight of a climactic scene with Paul Giamatti. The world Folman has created is just too vague and disconnected, and while it is filled with surreal and vivid sights, it seems to slip further and further out of his grasp the longer the film progresses. I can't really explain much of what occurs in the second half of The Congress and I found the experience of watching it extremely tiresome, which is a terrible shame because Folman's ambition and surfeit of ideas makes this exactly the kind of film I'd love to embrace.

Durban Poison

Andrew Worsdale's debut film as a director was Shot Down, which was made in 1988 and banned by the South African authorities, and it has taken him a quarter of a century to return to the director's chair. His second film is Durban Poison, which immediately feels disappointingly over-familiar. Inspired by true events, it's the story of two lovers on the fringes of society who hit the road and leave a trail of corpses in their wake. When we first meet Piet (Brandon Auret) and Joline (Cara Roberts) they are in custody and in the process of retracing their steps under police supervision to detail exactly who they killed, and where and why. These scenes unfold in flashback as the pair make their confessions, with Joline's recollections marked by an unswerving dedication to the man she is still deeply in love with, but it's hard to know how reliable a narrator she is. Aside from that slight storytelling wrinkle, Durban Poison is a thoroughly unremarkable Bonnie and Clyde-style endeavour, which makes one wonder why it was this story in particular that coaxed Worsdale back. The film just plods along from one incident to another with Worsdale failing to show much evidence of directorial flair or invention, and the only scene that does stand out is a direct homage to Godard's Le mépris. Auret – who slightly resembles Michael Shannon – is a solid performer but one who isn't tested beyond some simplistic emotional cues, whereas Cara Roberts is a much more interesting screen presence, and she brings some shades to her character that intrigue. But the characters are desperately underdeveloped (Joline gets one quick flashback to a troubled childhood, and that's it), the performances that surround the two leads are often amateurish, and some of the dialogue is confounding. "You can take a horse to water but you can't knock your head around a lot." Come again?

Hello Carter

Nobody sets out to make a bad film, but sometimes I do watch a terrible movie and wonder how on earth it was allowed to reach this stage. If I was a producer who received Anthony Wilcox's screenplay for Hello Carter – which is based on his 2011 short of the same name – I'd surely reject it as a first draft, with every aspect of the material being in serious need of development. But Wilcox's debut feature has made it to the LFF with its thin characterisation, underpowered plot and lame gags all intact, and the film dies an ugly death onscreen. Carter is played by Charlie Cox – a memorable performer on Boardwalk Empire, who utterly fails to make the grade here – and he is a character stuck in a rut. Unemployed, single and lacking any sense of direction in his life, Carter attempts to turn things around by going for a job interview and trying to make amends with his ex-girlfriend, but through a serious of dopey misunderstandings he ends up on the run from the police. Wilcox appears to be aiming for an After Hours vibe, with his milquetoast being pulled into one absurd situation after another during the course of a single long night, but something that should be played with a manic, anything-can-happen energy feels extraordinarily lethargic. Hello Carter is a film in which each of the characters consistently do inexplicable things purely to move the plot forward, and every encounter between the various characters depends on individuals bumping into each other at opportune moments (perhaps not surprising, given how sparsely populated every location is). The complete absence of wit or invention evident in the writing is dispiriting, and Wilcox relies too heavily on a grating musical score from Andrew Raiher to indicate every supposed emotional beat.  Aside from the always-professional Jodie Whittaker, none of the actors can give their one-dimensional characters any sense of an inner life, and being in this company appears to have had an adverse effect on the normally infallible Paul Schneider, who gives a horribly misjudged performance as an unhinged American actor.

Jeune et jolie

You never can be sure what you're going to get from the prolific and always interesting François Ozon, and his new film Jeune et jolie is a change of direction from last year's sly and tightly constructed In the House. This is something much more ephemeral and mysterious, and its opacity proves to be both a strength and a weakness. Structured across four seasons (recalling Rohmer), Jeune et jolie begins in summer where Isabelle (Marine Vacth) celebrates her 17th birthday and loses her virginity. As she and her family drive back home, Isabelle wears an inscrutable expression on her face, and the next time we meet her, in Autumn, we find that she is moonlighting as high-value prostitute called Lea. It's hard to reconcile this Isabelle with the one who we have just seen anxiously having sex for the first time, but we wait in vain for any kind of explanation for her actions. Isabelle remains an enticingly enigmatic figure throughout the film, never giving any reasons for doing the things she does (she doesn't even seem to spend the money that she accumulates), and it often seems that she is acting out of nothing more than a mild sense of teenage curiosity and rebellion. With nothing in the way of motivation to guide us, a lot rests on Marine Vacth's slender shoulders and she carries the burden with astonishing poise and grace, her beguiling screen presence and heart-stopping beauty commanding our attention. This feels like a weirdly half-formed effort from Ozon, who picks up and discards plot threads – such as the burgeoning sexual curiosity of Isabelle's brother, or her mother's possible affair – with carefree abandon. What matters here is really the mood and style of the piece more than the content, and Ozon's direction is at its most elegant here, ensuring the film flows beautifully from season to season, and he finds some striking, potent compositions throughout (the use of mirrors to underline Isabelle/Lea's duality may be obvious, but it works here). It's hard to know what exactly Ozon is trying to say here – and some scenes, like a late Charlotte Rampling cameo, just feel like bad decisions – but I found Jeune et jolie to be intriguing and occasionally entrancing, even if the film feels so slight it almost dissolves as you watch it.