What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
From Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2
You can forget all about Terence Malick’s Tree of Life juggernaut, one of the four stars of this comically quirky and quietly spiritual look at life is an enormous fir tree swaying gently in the forest. Our three other protagonists in this novel drama from director Michelangelo Frammartino, then, are a bronchial old man, a kid goat, and, um, a sackful of charcoal. Confused already? Well, throwing “world-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras” into the mix may not sound like the most obvious way of alleviating that predicament. However, what Mr. Frammartino is gently paying homage to here is this Greek philosopher’s view that the human soul passes through four states – those of man, animal, vegetable, and mineral respectively. In this respect, we can be glad that Gaspar Noé read The Tibetan Book of the Dead instead or the already-interminable Enter the Void (2009) would have gone on for longer than it took to build the Pyramids
Although a drama, the film is shot with such striking realism and seemingly callous detachment that it borders on the incomprehensible that anyone could continue to film certain events without staging an intervention. However, exhibiting a tremendous talent for staging elaborate visual gags, Mr. Frammartino’s unmissable centrepiece scene is the single take of the mayhem that the old goatherd’s dog causes as an Easter procession passes through the ancient Italian hilltop village. It is simply deadpan comedy at is finest. Equally, the pensive close-ups of actor Giuseppe Fuda are reminiscent of Rembrandt’s portraits of his ageing self in terms of their mute unvarnished sadness.
Win Win ought to be an entirely forgettable film experience, given that its comedic ideas have been sitcom chum for generations on end. For example, Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is rotund, balding, hiding financial pressures from his wife, and hanging out with men who still have difficulties in letting their youthful days go. In a moment of desperation, he does something stupid, the situation inevitably becomes complicated, and he ends up being forced to confront his shortcomings. I ruin nothing in revealing this. The way this film is going to work out is only short an explanatory title card at the start. Fortunately, though, unbridled creativity is not the reason one goes to see a Thomas McCarthy offering. Instead, he tends to provide us with agreeable reminders that despite being as pathetic, flawed, and lazy as we know ourselves to be, with even just a little more effort and social awareness, the good that we can then do could be exponentially greater.
Here, Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) end up taking in listless youth Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who comes replete with bad tats and an even worse dye-job. As attempts to re-unite him with his mother in Ohio prove problematic, Mike’s eagerness to see his temporary charge on the bus back home is softened, though, when Kyle turns out to be an exceptional addition to the school wrestling team that Mike coaches. However, there are enough flies in the ointment here to keep pest control busy for a month, so things are soon buzzing off course for our good-natured hero with a guilty secret or two. (more…)
In The Navigators (2001), Ken Loach trained his camera on the privatisation of the British railways. More particularly, he wanted to depict the economic, physical, mental, and even moral implications of unfettered capitalism on a group of hitherto happy-go-lucky labourers. In a sense, with his latest offering in Route Irish, he is returning to this same theme, as he shows how the combat zones of Afghanistan and Iraq have become the playground of private security firms, whose actions are subject to precious little scrutiny. However, Mr. Loach achieves this by literally bringing the war back home to the streets of Liverpool and the inability of troubled former soldier Fergus (Mark Womack) to accept that his best friend Frankie (John Bishop) could have died from being “in the wrong place at the wrong time”.
What follows then is a not entirely successful welding together of Mr. Loach’s social justice sensibilities with the tropes of a vengeance thriller. The main problem is really with Paul Laverty’s screenplay, which lacks both the tension and ability to disguise plot twists needed to make the latter work, whilst some of the dialogue is painfully expositional. On the other hand, the cuts to footage of the bloody carnage actually being wreaked in places like Baghdad may not exactly be subtle either. However, why should anything that appalling ever be? Moreover, its insertion into a work so pointedly set in the heart of working-class Britain allows links to be drawn between how ordinary people suffer everywhere, whilst a handful of remorseless exploiters are able to profit greatly.
That said, Route Irish ultimately has the feel of a half-baked Sunday night mini-series on television. That said, the casting is excellent and Fergus does make for an agreeably angry and single-minded anti-hero here. As with The Navigators, though, it has all come at the price of his soul.
Trace any thorny historical conflict back far enough and you could well find that its origins lie in Cain slaying Abel, Romulus killing Remus, or Set murdering Osiris. Similarly, in Things to Come (1936), the people have continued to fight long past the point where they can remember who the original enemy was or why the war even started to begin with. Indeed, in this film from Jerzy Skolimowski, we are plunged headlong into such a confusing and hostile world. Ostensibly borrowing from the so-called War on Terror in terms of Taliban fighters, water-boarding, and extraordinary rendition, there is virtually no dialogue in this film, never mind any of an expositional nature. Accordingly, all that we cab surmise about Mohammed (Vincent Gallo) is that he can handle weapons, is prepared to kill, is adept at survival measures, and has an enormous will to live, despite all of the pain, terror, and exhaustion that he is suffering from.
Indeed, what Essential Killing represents is an hour-long flight through the frozen forests of an unidentified part of Northern Europe. Mohammed does what he has to do in order to stay both alive and ahead of his pursuers. Although far from devoid of confrontations and other memorably dramatic events, the monotony of the landscape, the speechless nature of the protagonist, and the general stillness of the piece do challenge one’s ability to stay interested in this work. Therefore, despite one or two comic scenes that ensure that this is not an entirely austere work, it is best to think of this offering as being a visceral existentialist drama that affords the viewer plenty of time to ask questions regarding what he or she is witnessing. Moreover, the ambiguous ending is also a surprisingly tender one, as a voiceless human being becomes the first to show genuine generosity and compassion to another. It amounts to a single ray of hope in a world where the life of any individual counts for less and less in the face of State power.
Leena (Noomi Rapace) is a thirty-something woman who learns that her mother (Outi Mäenpää) is close to death and that she wishes to see her daughter one last time. The issue here is that Leena has become so estranged from her mother that her own husband and children are not even aware that the latter is still alive. Indeed, Leena’s first reaction is to say nothing and instead disappear off to the solitude of the local swimming pool. Here, though, she sees a vision of herself as a young girl (Tehilla Blad), which is a symbolic device that then allows debutant Swedish director Pernilla August to embark upon a twin-track tale of how Leena grew up to be this emotionally-scarred woman and what effect going to see her mother will now have upon her. The result constitues such a deeply personal narrative that it comes as no surprise to learn that the screenplay was adapted by Ms. August from a semi-autobiographical work by novelist Susanna Alakoski.
However, whereas Ms. Rapace delivers an impressively intense and emotionally-wracked performance here, the character of Leena’s husband has been underdeveloped and there are several other weaknesses in the narrative surrounding her trip back home. On the other hand, when the film concentrates on Leena’s upbringing, it is at its most potent. Essentially, her parents were Finnish immigrants to Sweden. Her father (Ville Virtanen) was a violent drunk and her mother, an enabler, who was equally capable of drinking to excess. The result was that Leena was much more responsible for her younger brother (Junior Blad) than she ever ought to have been, whilst always left feeling different from her peers. Moreover, the living conditions that both children were growing up in and what they often had to witness were appalling. (more…)
In Tell No One (2006), Gilles Lellouche plays a tough criminal who comes to the aid of a doctor caught up in extraordinary events and on the run from the law. In this thriller from director Fred Cavayé, though, Mr. Lellouche plays a trainee nurse caught up in extraordinary events, on the run from the law, and who is in need of assistance from a tough crimimal (Roschdy Zem). Yet, whereas the earlier work balanced its many action scenes with a script that offered up a few decent twists and turns, Point Blank has all of the testosterone-pumping energy that you might expect from a Hollywood offering of the same name. Indeed, it even manages to make Mesrine (2008) seem like a film about schoolgirls picking daisies by a babbling brook – a comparison partly inspired by Gérard Lanvin following up his “hard man” role in the latter with the part of an enigmatic. growling cop in this one.
Essentially, it is the sort of work that likes to turn the set into matchsticks, to make busy with the sweat, blood, and injuries, and to never feel to shy about giving an already convoluted plot a final preposterous tweak or two. Indeed, to the extent that there is a plot here, Mr. Lellouche’s character saves a man’s life, but soon has cause to regret it as he becomes an unwilling agent in getting the man out of the hospital afterwards. From thereon-in, it gets progressively sillier until a scene reminiscent of the first Terminator and Matrix movies respectively pops up to provide us with a breathless but tidy conclusion. To put it all another way, this film is nothing if not derivative city.
And, yes, fear not, for that is the epilogue at the end and not the start of some entirely undesirable fourth act.
A case of the Paddy who went into the cold here, as Irishman Johnny O’Reilly helms this Russian mystery-drama set in yet another icy and remotely-based meteorological station (the other being How I Ended This Summer (2010)). Indeed, the two films initially seem to have much in common, with a nervous newbie in Romash (Pyotr Logachev) being pushed around here by a surly superior in Drozdov (Sergey Garmash). Their relationship then looks set to deteriorate even further when they receive some bad news. However, it is at this point that the two works start to diverge in terms of plot, with this one partially becoming a police procedural drama. This change occurs when the film suddenly skips forward forty-eight hours and the police, led by Andrey (Aleksey Guskov), are on-site trying to piece together what must have taken place during the intervening period.
Unquestionably well-made, this offering does suffer, though, from the use of a number of highly familiar “MacGuffin”s, not least the possibility that an abominable snowman is out there waiting to grind the bones of some Russians to make his bread. Perhaps more problematic again is the fact that the film falls down between two stools here, with it being neither especially suspenseful nor psychological in nature. Hence, as much as you can appreciate the quality of the acting, cinematography, original music score, editing, and so forth, there remains that inescapable sense here that this ultimately boils down to being the sort of drama that you have seen many times before in a variety of other guises. A pity really.
That said, Mr. O’Reilly is understood to be working on a new project that wants to challenge a few international perceptions of what life in Moscow is really like. As such, it definitely sounds intriguing already.
First-time director Philip Koch insists that the inspiration for his dark, claustrophobic, and disturbing drama set inside of a German youth detention centre is derived solely from actual events. As such, it provides the audience with an unflinching look at life within the cramped confines of an ageing building where the teenagers spend hours each day locked up in overcrowded multi-occupant cells. In such a world, it gets explained, one either becomes a victim or a culprit and strong but introverted new inmate Kevin (Constantin von Jascheroff) is not given much time to decide which path that he is going to walk down.
Touching on themes such as depression, bullying, and abandonment by society at large, this is a minimalist work that has been shot in limp, pallid colours. It depicts a Darwinian environment where negative emotions are either treated with pills or left to fester to the point where they become truly destructive. In intimate scenes, there are tears and fears, as each boy is confronted by how remote he feels from his friends and family. In a final, harrowing act, though, these same individuals are mercilessly torturing one of their own, as the significance of a perceived act of weakness becomes magnified beyond all possible reason. The result is a despairingly grim one. Indeed, it would be nice to pretend that such a narrative arc was an exaggeration were it not for the fact that similar incidents have occurred in the Irish prison system alone, never mind those that have inspired Mr. Koch’s work. (more…)
Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is a genial but hopelessly inexperienced middle-aged man who is besotted by a woman old enough to be his mother, who has never been on an aeroplane or stayed in a hotel before, and who makes Andy Sitzner in The 40-Year Old Virgin (2005) seem like a cross between Don Juan and Raoul Duke. The film sees our reluctant hero unexpectedly dispatched off to an important annual insurance conference located in the Midwest town of Cedar Springs. Here, he comes under the influence of three so-called reprobates by way of characters played by John C. Reilly, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Anne Heche respectively and as much drunken fun as you can have whilst wearing a business suit quickly ensues. There is also some flimsy twaddle about winning a convention award, but the least said about that the better.
Instead, this film’s greatest strength lies in it being an uncomplicated, big-hearted, and infectiously fast-paced comedy. Admittedly, the gags are not terribly novel and the dialogue offers little by way of originality. Despite this, though, and after a pedestrian enough introductory set of scenes, the laughs do start to flow. It is no coincidence either that this improvement in the entertainment stakes comes with the arrival of Mr. Reilly’s loud-mouthed, unshakeably upbeat, and predictably dishevelled character at the hotel. In the sort of over-the-top performance that suits him down to the ground, Mr. Reilly is the rock upon which this film stands. That said, Ms. Heche succeeds in delivering a performance here that combines being sexily beguiling with being “one of the guys”, whilst Mr. Whitlock mixes arch meta-references to The Wire with the requisite straight-guy performance needed in a group of this nature. The odd man out, to some extent, is the thinly-written main protagonist of Tim. However, Mr. Helms does well enough at balancing out his character’s scarcely-credible immaturity with the fact that he is still a middle-aged man with some sense of what adult behaviour should be like. (more…)
Stephen Marshall’s documentary spends time with two religious extremists over a three-year period. The first, Aaron D. Taylor, is an American Christian evangelist who has taken it upon himself in the past to spread his version of the “Good News” in parts of west Africa and Pakistan where Islam is the predominant belief. The other is Khalid Kelly, an Irishman who converted to Islam whilst in a Saudi Arabian prison and who now fervently believes in the supremacy of Sharia law and the need for jihad. Now, there are two ways that such a documentary is typically going to cut. Either it will hold its subjects up to ridicule simply by highlighting the ludicrous nature of their world views or it will give them a sympathetic enough airing and then bring a degree of intellectual rigour to finding any substance or otherwise behind all of the silly rhetoric. Interestingly, though, while the film does seem to begin with the former in mind, a face-to-face meeting between the two subjects leads to an unexpected development, which this review does not wish to spoil.
At the same time, the problem with this documentary is that the guiding hand of its director is just too apparent. Not only does he place himself in some of the scenes (not least one where he is worrying that the Pakistani police are on their way to question him), but he provides the sort of voice-over narrations clearly intended to get the viewer to see the film from a particular and rather questionable perspective. For example, we see clips of Mr. Kelly protesting outside British police stations, meeting a deported radical cleric in Lebanon, attending a social gathering of loud-mouthed hotheads in London, and poncing around Pakistan with a rifle slung over his shoulder. Clearly, it all seems to fit into some “useful fool” narrative, yet Mr. Marshall never goes near asking thorny questions in this regard. Rather, he lets the naive Mr. Taylor be the underweight challenger to Mr. Kelly’s confident, well-rehearsed, but generally ludicrous outpourings. (more…)
It is a reflection of how confining these school-based dramas can be that it is nigh on impossible not to make reference to similar films that have gone before. As a result, combine the private school nastiness of Cruel Intentions (1999) with the elegiac menace of Elephant (2003) and the modern media approach of Ben X (2007) and you arrive at this Australian tale of the ripples caused by a deeply unsavoury incident that occurs at the end of a teenage house party. Indeed, in the film’s protagonist Darren (Oliver Ackland), there is more than a passing physical and personality-type resemblance to the titular character of the last of these three films. To put this another way, he is a very bright, but socially awkward teenager, who still possesses a surprising amount of self-confidence and moral courage for someone of his age. In opposition, then, lies his half-brother Zack (Alex Russell), the coolest guy in the school and – you won’t see this one coming – the captain of the swim team. What comes between them then is what happens to classmate Xandrie (Adelaide Clemens).
Clearly written by director Ben C. Lucas with a younger audience in mind, the result is a film that stays loyal to familiar school-drama tropes such as popularity, cliques, bullying, conformity -v- individualism, and all of that wild experimentation be it with sex, drugs, or just plain old new ideas. Equally, it is interesting how the direction delivers bite-sized scenes to a pumping soundtrack, coupled to the on-screen scrolling of what the different characters are texting each other about. Yet, if your teenage years occurred prior to the whole explosion of instant communication and social media, then this film will definitely still provide some discomfiting food for thought. Put another way, it is to this work’s definite credit how well it captures the unending self-obsession, ridiculous self-righteousness, and sheeplike behaviour of that age group. It made my skin crawl, far more out of some half-forgotten sense of familiarity rather than any adult-vision sense of distaste.
Shot in cool blues, related in snappy and elliptical fashion, and with a near total absence of adult intervention, this is a hyperreal account of modern teenage pressures. Conveniently, the whole rich-kid angle does allow for a certain exaggerated sense of arrogance through entitlement. However, the good does outweigh the bad in this offering. Also, how the cinematographer uses light in the underwater sequences is absolutely sensational!
In the amusingly silly Burn After Reading (2008), J.K. Simmons’s CIA officer despairingly listens to a synopsis of the plot to date before instructing a subordinate to “report back to me when it makes sense.” Such a remark is symptomatic of the goofy-but-cutting satirical approach that Joel and Ethan Coen have adopted in their more tongue-in-cheek offerings, i.e. the riddling of what should be deadly serious situations with amiable but ridiculous buffoons. Now, across this particular prairie comes galloping Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). At first glance, he is a quintessential Coen hero – an unwitting man who is miles out of his depth in a situation that is likely to get him seriously hurt, if not killed. However, where this version of True Grit belies its name is in its fuzzily romantic adherence to a style of Western film-making that was meant to have died out forty years ago. Hence, even a “rodeo clown” gets his cloyingly cheesy moment of heroism here. Not quite as bad as Sgt. Powell at the end of Die Hard (1988), perhaps, but not that far off it either.
Of course, LaBoeuf is not the central character here either. Rather, this honour is shared between his travelling companions of sassy and vengeful Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) and a fat one-eyed gunman in Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). Even here, though, there is an incoherent tone, with the former oscilalting between being a tomboy on an imaginary adventure and providing glimpses of the dour, no-nonsense woman that she would grow up to be, whilst the latter intersperses grizzled ramblings and drunken clowning around with the occasional flash of a cold-blooded lawman who shoots first and demands to know what questions he should have asked later. Indeed, if there had to be one word only to sum up this film, then it would be “pastiche”. Hence, with a warning that vague spoilers are now on the way, we have a denouement here that goes from black comedy to a typically improbable Hollywood climax to a scene where Peter Pan defeats Captain Hook to the clunky – almost comic-book – symbolism of what takes place next. (more…)
Pablo Trapero follows up his socially-conscious female prison drama in Lion’s Den (2008) with this even more provocative depiction of the Argentine health system. In particular, where the director excels here is in how much he lets the peripheries of his compositions tell their own stories. Hence, despite a significant foregrounding of the characters, the eye is still drawn to the plaster peeling off hospital walls, the overflowing rubbish bins, the poorly-lit wards, and the hopelessly cramped and unclean treatment rooms. If this alone is not enough to remind one of Cristi Puiu’s brilliant The Death of Mister Lazarescu (2005), then the sight of intern doctor Luján (Martina Gusman) pleading with a nurse to have a patient admitted surely will. Yet, for all that, this film is ostensibly written as a thriller where an ambulance-chasing counsellor in Sosa (Ricardo Darín) falls for Luján and ends up dragging her down into his murky world of foolhardy insurance scams and poor people being ripped off by unscrupulous law firms.
Essentially, the film is based around the grim reality that some 8,000 people lose their lives in Argentina every year due to road accidents and a further 120,000 are injured. Not only does this keep the hospitals busy, but there is a booming market afterwards in pursuing personal injury claims against insurance companies. And, where there is that much money on offer in difficult economic times, then there is also corruption and fraud involving the police, hospital workers, and any number of private individuals to be found. Shot mostly at night, then, there is a claustrophobic doom-filled sense of the netherworld here. Indeed, although carancho means vulture in English, there is more of a vampiric bite to how these men feed on their prey. Moreover, with the final scene taking place in bright sunshine, the chaos that ensues is almost as if the characters have been disorientated by the scrutinising light. (more…)
All that’s beautiful drifts away
Like the waters.
From The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water by William B. Yeats
Once again we are reminded in Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry of a modern-day South Korea that is characterised by causal male chauvinism, acts of violence that are then exacerbated by a communal antipathy towards the suffering of others, and the sense of a highly unequal society where problems are measured only by how much won it will take to resolve them. Yet, it is precisely in such a world that sixty-something Mija (Yun Jeong-hie) has embarked upon a quest to find beauty in ordinary things. Unfortunately, though, her muse appears to be stillborn, as she concurrently tries to come to terms with a shocking revelation regarding her sullen and sour-looking teenage grandson Jong-wook (Lee Da-wit). As a result, Mija appears to walk around in a daze for most of the film, with the concern perennially there that she may well be slipping away into the mists of her own deteriorating mental faculties.
As with Secret Sunshine (2007), though, Mr. Lee is challenging his audience to see. In elementary poetical terms, perhaps, this may be to pay close attention to the shape of an apple, the colour of a flower, or the sound of the wind rustling through the leaves. However, as we are fast discovering through Mija’s eyes, this is far from the only truth that we can be blinded to. Yet, there is also a curious dynamic at work here. In one sense, Mija does appear to have an appreciable capacity to stop and smell the proverbial roses. Moreover, some fire does burn within her to try and express how this makes her feel. However, it is also noticeable that such fascination on her part also acts as a comfort blanket when she is confronted by distasteful reality, e.g. when Mija abruptly leaves a meeting to inspect the flowerbed outside. As such, perhaps it is overcoming the fear of recognising what we truly are that seems to be this film’s challenge. (more…)
For all its failures, the [economic] boom did liberate the Irish from the sense of history as, in James Joyce’s formulation, “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” It banished the underlying Irish sense of doom, the bitter spectre of self-contempt that was always whispering in our ears that we would screw it all up. And then we screwed it all up.
From Enough is Enough by Fintan O’Toole
On my old website, I remember writing a piece about the cultural similarities between Finland and Ireland. Back then, I was exploring the Finnish alternative music scene. Here, it is the turn of the lesser spotted Finnish cinematic offering. Its English title (at least) sets things up nicely. Set in the dark and wintry north of the country, this is a tongue-in-cheek road journey where three inept heroes go on a mock-epic quest for a digibox so that Janne (Jussi Vatanen) can prevent his wife (Moa Gammel) from leaving him by the following morning. It is as slender as that and all of the humour is derived from the various eccentric characters that they meet along the road, not to mention playing on issues that are heavily associated with Finland, be they snow, forests, heavy drinking, saunas, mobile telephony, and more-money-than-sense Russian tourists. (more…)
Some year ago, whilst in Hamburg, I visited the city’s gallery of modern art. One of the exhibits there featured a dozen or so heavy black typewriters rigged to an elaborate system of pistons that then created this remarkable musical sound as the different keys were pressed on each machine. Equally, who can forget the imaginative musical rhythms generated by the bed springs in Delicatessen (1991)? However, this film goes much further than such examples, again. Instead, a group of avant garde Swedish musicians plan on performing an unusual symphony in four movements, where their venues will be public spaces such as hospital buildings or banks, and their instruments will be the items that are on hand there. As the group’s actions will involve trespassing, not to mention criminal damage and, even, personal molestation, though, their activities soon come to the attention of the police. Here, Amadeus Warnebring (Bengt Nilsson), the tone-deaf Head of the Anti-Terrorism unit, sees it has his personal mission to bring the miscreants to justice.
In an era, though, where citizens of many countries are trading their civil rights for some supposed notion of “greater security”, this comedy from Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson comes as a hugely welcome relief. Deliberately tapping into a funky sixties vibe, as well as cleverly parodying bog-standard heist and police procedural dramas, there are more than enough excellent one-liners and visual gags in this offering to recommend it highly as a work that will make you laugh. However, the real magic comes in the musical performances. Most of the actors are also skilled percussionists and they are given free license here to show off what they can do. The result is several wonderful examples of versatile polyrhythmic drumming, with the entire city put at their disposal as a finale. (more…)
In the novels of Gabriel García Márquez, there is typically this sense of a darker subtext to the events taking place on the day-to-day level. For example, in In Evil Hour, the tacit legacy of a previous civil conflict colours much of the otherwise routine action, although it takes time for this to become fully apparent. Such an approach suggests something that can only be alluded to and not discussed outright and in public. Indeed, although the coastal Columbian village in this film is smaller and probably more remote than the ones that Mr. Márquez has written about, there is that same tantalising sense in Crab Trap of a situation that can only be meaningfully nodded in the direction of and not explored head-on.
First of all, there is the arrival in this village of Daniel (Rodrigo Vélez). Immediately noticeable for his pale skin in this Afro-Colombian community, he is eager to find a private means of leaving the country as quickly as possible. However, with the fishermen currently away at sea, he is trapped there, just as a featured crab is rendered immobile when placed on its back. Furthermore, there are allusions to a couple who have already passed this way before him, as well as to the photo of a mystery woman that Daniel carries around in his backpack. In the background, then, is a frequent refrain of media references to confrontations between government forces and armed rebels. Meanwhile, in the bar, drunken tourists boast of their allegiances to the narcoterrorist group FARC, whilst armed soldiers mysteriously appear one day on the beach. However, all of this simply equates to receiving a mere fraction of the pieces and then still being asked to assemble the jigsaw puzzle. (more…)
Bear with me on this one. This is a Hungarian film about how a middle-aged woman reacts to being left by her husband. However, this protagonist is played by Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege who does not speak any Hungarian (one of the most difficult European languages to learn, by the way). Hence, it was necessary to re-work the screenplay so that she has virtually no lines, save for some basic dialogue in broken English or German. Not only that, the actor playing her daughter’s husband is Irish. While it is obvious that he does not speak any Hungarian either, at least actor Padraic Delaney’s character is not masquerading as a native of the country! Further complicating matters, then, is that half of the film is shot in Istanbul, which features a blatant plug from the Turkish tourist board to go visit the magical region of Cappadocia.
Welcome to the world of the “Europudding”, where so many independent films have to contort themselves in extraordinary ways in order to secure the vital foreign funding needed for their successful realisation!
The funny thing is that this film still interests on two levels. Firstly, there is the technical fascination with how writer/director Ferenc Török manages to work all of these challenges into this offering and still pull off a work of reasonable coherency. Indeed, one trick that he employs is to make the central character of Katalin go mute with the shock of her husband unexpectedly announcing that he is now in love with someone else. Presented as a form of mental breakdown, it makes for a curious occurrence, especially as she then “goes on the run” to Istanbul. Here, she meets Halil (Yavuz Bingol) and, with any risk of this being a nasty dose of the Shirley Valentines swiftly averted, their relationship proves to be a pleasingly sentimental highlight of this somewhat hotch-potch offering. (more…)
Writer/director Im Sang-soo offers up a modern revision here of Kim Ki-young’s dark 1960 thriller of the same name. Here, a young woman called Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) takes on the role of housemaid and nanny to a young über-rich family. Before long, though, she is involved in an affair with the husband and all hell breaks lose once the women of the house come to discover this. So far, so terribly formulaic. However, it is in the delivery that this incredibly black piece of comedy writing shines. Like so many modern Korean films, the director continuously changes the point of attack. Hence, what starts out as being po-faced social realism turns into a brutish view of male chauvinism before becoming about the complex inter-relationships between four women and a little girl. Throughout it all, then, the glossy cinematography, the excellent use of music, and many minor comic moments (typically involving Yun Yeo-Jong as the other house servant Miss Cho) make this a curious mix of the horrific, the heart-rending, and the hilarious.
Indeed, throughout this film, Mr. Im paints a terribly bleak and uncaring portrait of society – one that is not limited to any one economic class or gender of person either. In a prologue scene, a woman falls to her death on a street teeming with all manner of night-life. Some rubber-necking apart, though, hardly anyone seems to be affected by what they have just witnessed. This deep apathy towards others then continues to set the tone for Eun-yi’s time in the house. Portraying the rich in this manner does not break any genre-boundaries, for sure. However, the added dimension here is that there is seemingly no point in anyone being weak or caring in this world. As the long-suffering Miss Cho explains, on one occasion, to Eun-yi, you have to put up with a lot of hardship, but at least this family compensates one well for their excesses. Yes, such an attitude is born of a neo-liberal society at its ugliest. However, this is precisely the effect that the director is looking for here. (more…)
Here is the thing that I really hate about this film and others of its ilk. They take what could be a fantastic idea for a film and then just use it as a cheap hook for some humdrum claptrap or other. In this instance, the title boldly refers to a medical condition whereby the sufferer loses the cognitive ability to properly process what they are hearing, seeing or smelling. Instead, everything comes across as being one great jumbled and distorted heap that they must battle to make sense of. In this instance, it is Joana Prat (Bárbara Goenaga) who has suffered from such an affliction since childhood. However, rather than imaginatively centring the work around her struggle to comprehend the world, Joana is simply employed here as the helpless female foil for a plot involving industrial espionage and the romantic attentions of two nearly-identical-looking men, played by Eduardo Noriega (Carles) and Félix Gómez (Vicent) respectively.
Anyway, as far as the plot goes, A Tale of Two Cities it is not. Rather, it is an underwritten melodrama, with a ridiculous and entirely overwrought ending, which looks to mask its blatant shortcomings with an orchestral score powerful enough to crush concrete into powder. Okay, so there is something agreeably akin to The Prestige in terms of the atmosphere and period dress and the first act has enough potential in it to be pretty hopeful for what is to come. Unfortunately, that is not what is going to transpire. Equally, one could make the figurative case for how Carles and Vincent are two sides of the same coin. However, this film is not really demanding any such analysis from its audience. Rather, it just wants to be a maudlin old-fashioned love story with a silly but beautiful princess who is in need of rescuing. Eugenio Mira directs.
This film from Takeshi Kitano takes a darkly humorous look at the yakuza crime gangs of Tokyo. Supposed to be remarkably hierarchical in structure and allegedly bound by strict codes of filial and fraternal loyalty, the alternative picture painted here is one of a political maelstrom where everyone is jostling for advantage whilst seeming to adhere to the ancient rules. At the top of the tree then sits the Chairman, dressed here, it seems, to resemble North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il. A born Machiavellian, his conflicting instructions to underlings are intended to quell a possible threat to his position, as well as to bring the operations of an outside crime family into his domain. As a result, some minor political skirmishing quickly descends into being an all-out tit-for-tat, with plenty of gruesome executions to be beheld.
In one sense, this all essentially amounts to a well-made but entirely formulaic offering, where body count matters significantly more than plot or character arc do. Indeed, the ending is so foreseeable from so early on that one naively presumes that it is meant as just another red herring to be eventually discarded. Alas, this is not the case and instead there is the sort of carry-on that aspires towards brutal but stylistic entertainment. As such, though, it it simply lacks the sort of panache that Quentin Tarantino would have brought to such a work in his pomp. In other words, the audience is presented with a barrage of merciless gruffly-spoken men whose time on-screen amounts to being either executioner or “food for powder”, as Falstaff would have termed it. (more…)
Recently restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation and spanning decades and vast tracts of land, Mest is an epic, mysterious, and allegorical film from Kazakh director Ermek Shinarbaev. Essentially, though, it is a film made in the memory of how Stalin forced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Koreans to migrate internally from their homeland in the Russian Far East to new settlements in Central Asia. Known in English as Revenge, it is the tale of how an unforgivable murder gets committed and how a son is then sired to avenge the death of his step-sister. As grand in ambition as it is low in budget, it is easy to point to the flaws in this work (not least some terrible acting). However, as there is something strangely thought-provoking about what takes place here, such considerations are going to be swept under the carpet in this review in favour of talking up the work’s mystifying poetic and psychological elements.
Indeed, recurring questions here are what is the point of bringing children into this world and to what purpose is life best directed? Made near to the end of a century that had seen countless millions suffer grievously from ruinous ideological extremities and in the context of a long history of new generations being raised to seek retribution for wrongs done to the preceding one, these come as timely inquiries. In this film, such concerns are then portrayed as being tensions between love and hatred, creation and destruction, and, of course, life and death. These even take on a spiritual dimension with the repeated appearances of both a universal mother and a wise monk, as well as various phantoms from the past. With the villain finally succumbing to a death rich in poetic justice, this film then ends with the remarkable depiction of two unknown old women standing by a seashore and speaking of escape and renewal. (more…)
As we have already seen with Asif Kapadia’s Far North (2007) and Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia (1997), it is very easy for characters to slip into some form of madness in the harsh and uncompromising landscape of the Arctic Circle. Here, an alpha male in the burly shape of veteran meteorologist Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis) is joined at his remote and lonely weather station by a beta male in the diminutive form of college graduate Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin). The early collisions between the pair are obvious, be it Sergei’s experience versus Pavel’s carelessness, the latter’s new telemetry equipment versus the former’s handwritten records, or simply that of one being happy with his solitude versus the other still treating work as if he is in the playground. However, when a frightened Pavel fails to pass on some tragic information to Sergei, the situation quickly descends into one where the younger man becomes increasingly fearful for his life.
This psychological drama from writer/director Aleksei Popogrebsky unfolds over a leisurely two hours or so. During this time, there are many extended scenes of Pavel looking forlorn and scared, as well as those that revel in the extraordinary but stark beauty of the location. However, what initially seems like a welcome lightness of touch in terms of setting up the relationship between the two men later proves to be an insubstantial one in terms of understanding why certain pivotal moments occur. Yes, it is possible to make reasonable deductions as to the two characters’ specific motivations. However, the plot still suffers from this imbalance between “cause” and “effect”. In particular, Sergei is a character worthy of greater analysis than gets offered here. (more…)