SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS BERLINALE 2012
A MOI SEULE
CESARE DEVE MORIRE/ CAESAR MUST DIE
CSAK A SZEL/ JUST THE WIND
ENFANT D’EN HAUT, L’/ SISTER
EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE
FLOWERS OF WAR
FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE
IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY
JAYNE MANSFIELD’S CAR
KEEP THE LIGHTS ON
LOST IN PARADISE
MER A L’AUBE, La/ CALM AT SEA
MY BROTHER THE DEVIL
POSTCARDS FROM THE ZOO
REBELLE/ WAR WITCH
ROYAL AFFAIR, A
VIERGE, LES COPTES ET MOI…, La
WAS BLEIBT/ HOME FOR THE WEEKEND
WHITE DEER PLAIN
A MOI SEULE (COMING HOME)
Directed by Frederic Videau.
In recent years, there have a number of horrifying stories about child abductions and the Basement imprisonment of the children, principally young girls. This is one of those stories, although the director says it is his own imagination based on these stories.
It doesn’t quite begin that way, or we don’t realize that this is the situation. A moody worker returns home and lifts part of the floor. A teenage girl emerges stating that he woke her. Then she runs, and continues running, hides in a bus shelter where an old poster indicates that she has been missing for a long time.
She undergoes, somewhat unwillingly, treatment in an institution. She re-connects with her divorced parents, her mother still imagining her the girl whom she lost earlier. This gives rise to flashbacks which show us the interaction and hostilities between captor and prisoner. However, the captor does not take any sexual advantage. Rather, he keeps her as a companion, cooking, caring, testing her eyes for glasses, supervising dictation for homework. At the time of being taken, Gaelle was ten. While Vincent is a monster in taking and holding Gaelle, he does not always act monstrously, which creates a different type of tension between the two.
Gaelle flees the institution, feeling free and knowing that she can start her life again.
This film offers sketches of the characters rather than deep portraits.
France/ Senegal, 2011
Directed by Alain Gomis.
There is a prologue about death, the sense of death and death coming on. This is a film about death, taking place over one day, the last day of Satche’s life.
The setting is Senegal, the director from Senegal, filming in Dakar. The film presupposes Senegalese customs and religious beliefs and practices, the expectations of the death of a chosen one, their finally being with the gods, a sacrifice validated by animal sacrifice.
Satche is played by American musician and poet, Saul Williams.
Satche is a middle-aged man who has studied in America. Now, he wakes one morning, the last day of his life, the chosen one. He is feted in his mother’s house, elders, family and guests acclaim him as he wakes and processes through the house. A cow is slaughtered. For the rest of the day, Satche meets friends and acquaintances, reliving the happiness of his past with his friends and with his uncles and the gurus, with the man who will tend his dead body. His friends clash and he offers peace. Others condemn him for what he has not done in his life, branding him a weak and bullied man. He meets a fashionable woman who tempts him with memories of a past rejection. He takes a taxi ride but avoids the public gathering in his honour. He spends the last part of his day with his family, playing with his children while his wife who seems to be too busy to be with him, but who finally sits with him, communing with and loving him.
There are no explicit explanations of why Satche must die. Rather, we have to gauge by the overview of his life and the comments of friends what his life has meant.
Directed by Christian Petzold.
Non- German audiences need to know that this film is set in East Germany in 1978 – clues come later but audiences may miss them initially and be puzzled by some plot developments.
Christian Petzold has made some fine German films, a number with leading actress, Nina Hoss. Here she plays a Berlin doctor who has been disciplined and sent to work in a provincial hospital. The local medico is kind, but she is wary, especially when she is frequently subject to humiliating security checks.
She is private but has connections with a West German who is engineering her escape. In the meantime, she becomes attached to some of the patients, especially with a young prisoner and with a would-be suicide. Through a range of coincidences, she has to make a choice about whether she will make her escape to Denmark or not.
The film is really a portrait of a good woman who faces moral choices in a very restrictive society. It is carried by Nina Hoss’s performance and strong screen presence.
Directed by Brillante Mendoza.
With his win (unpopular with the audience who booed) as Best Director for Kinatay in Cannes 2009, Brillante Mendoza has been able to move from local, ‘guerilla’ film-making and exhibition to the world stage. In fact, he has had films in competition in Locarno (Masahista), The Foster Child, Tirador (in the Forum at Berlin), Serbis and Kinatay in Cannes, Lola in Venice. With Captive, he was in competition in Berlin and had isabelle Huppert (head of the jury which gave him the award in Cannes) as his star.
Captive is based on actual events in Mindanao in 2001-2002, when a group of local and international men and women were abducted by Abu and held to ransom. The experience of the hostages was gruelling – and Mendoza invites us to share that gruelling experience with a great attention to detail, hand-held camera work which gets in there among the captors and the hostages. Watching the film is often hard going. But, it is all very well-staged, whether in the discomfort of the jungle or in a siege in a provincial hospital. There is diary information, including hearing the news of 9/11, New Year’s Day 2002, and the final attack on the terrorists when there were only a few hostages remaining, ransoms having been paid or deaths lessening the number.
The bewilderment is well conveyed, the long voyages and continual treks in the jungle. Some characters are well delineated, others more on the periphery, and that includes captors and hostages. With Isabelle Huppert, immersing herself as always in the role, there is an anchor for international audience. She plays a social worker from France who has worked in the Philippines for five years. Other hostages include some local women, some Chinese women, an American missionary couple. The captors can be vicious, sometimes considerate (including some booy soldiers), eager for the ransom money, rather naive at times. They also take staff from the hospital after the siege. They are presented as devout, if literal in their reading of Quran texts, warriors for Allah.
At this stage, hostage taking in Mindanao was rather elementary. As the film’s ending points out, hostage taking has increased rather than been stamped out, and disputes between Muslims and Christians have not been settled.
Mendoza has moved from more intimate stories, often focused on poverty and on sexuality, to a broader Philippine and international canvas and crafted an effective film on 21st century terrorism.
CESARE DEVE MORIRE/ CAESAR MUST DIE
Directed by Paolo e Vittorio Taviani
The Taviani Brothers have been making films for forty years or more, slices of Italian life, memoirs of World War 2, historical dramas and a look back at the early days of Hollywood and D.W. Griffith in Good Morning, Babylon. Now they have gone to the high security prison, Rebibbia, and made a film about a group there which has been experimenting with prisoners and theatre production for some years.
The artistic director, Fabio Cappelli, has collaborated with the Taviani Brothers for the screenplay and appears in his actual role in the auditions and direction sequences.
The play chosen is Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The film opens in colour with the death of Brutus, the curtain call and the acclaim of the audience from outside. It then goes back six months – and into black and white (except for a few select scenes) – to trace the developments in production and performance.
The auditions are quite striking, the prisoners asked to give personal details as if they were at a border crossing, sad to leave their wives, and then, the same information in anger mode against authorities. This gives us an opportunity to see the versatility of the prisoners in performance, as well as to be told of their ages, sentences and reasons for sentence. These men are criminals, some members of the Camorra, drug dealers and murderers. However, as the rehearsals go on, we get to know some of them and admire their acting skills.
Shakespeare’s words have been pared down considerably while retaining the core of the play and the sense of the dramatic tension in key characters. Most of the actors are convincing while, sometimes, guards look on, and other prisoners represent the Roman crowds. Sometimes a touch of personal drama intrudes, for instance when Brutus is upset one day because of a visit.
Then, the play’s audience arrives again, the play is performed and we take up with the Battle of Philippi, the death of Brutus and the curtain call.
Finally, the key prisoners return to the cells, the doors close and they are really in prison again. The credits indicate that the prisoners portraying Caesar and Cassius (who does not have a lean and hungry look) have both written books on their experiences. Brutus as been pardoned and now works in theatre.
The film is cinematically theatrical, an effective communication of Shakespeare and, of course, a positive activity for the prisoners themselves.
Ashley Winshaw, Heather Graham, Dev Patel, James Franco, Lili Taylor
Directed by Stephen Elliott.
It depends on your point of view whether you think that this, kind of paperback version, story of Angelina from Los Angeles is a downhill story or an achievement tale.
Model Ashley Winshaw is Angelina, an attractive young woman, whose mother drinks (Lili Taylor), who has a brutal father and a vulnerable younger sister, as well as a platonic friendship with Indian, Andrew (Dev Patel, the Slumdog Millionaire). What will life offer her? Actually, she is not backward in grasping what turns out to be a sleazy life does offer.
She goes somewhat coyly to a photo-session and discovers something of the exhibitionist in herself. Soon, she sneaks off to San Francisco with the ever-devoted Andrew – he will accuse her later, rightly, of treating him like a pet. Before you can say Strip Club, she is a hostess, being advised she ought to be a dancer. But, soon, as Cherry, she auditions for Margaret (Heather Graham) for some lesbian porn clips and is into the business. A complication arises when her mother and sister come for a visit and leave with some cash and disillusionment. Another is her affair with a wealthy former artist who spends his money on drugs (James Franco).
Let’s say that she ends up materially successful.
Former sex worker, Stephen Elliott, says he wanted to tell a story about the industry he and fellow writer, Lorelei Lee (probably about as real as Cherry for a name) have known well. They have collected quite a number of reputable actors. But, the treatment is mainly surface with a few moments of angst – though most of the angst comes in the subplot about Margaret and her possessive partner.
There are a few sex scenes as expected though most are not nearly as explicit as one finds in other films.
DICTADO/ DICTATION/ CHILDISH GAMES
Directed by Antonio Chivariass
A small film by festival standards. The Spanish title does not quite do justice to the themes while the English title does – ultimately revealing a deadly secret in past childish games.
Daniel is in a relationship with Laura, a fellow-teacher, who wants children. Their happy and busy life is interrupted when a childhood friend seeks out X. He is clearly demented, urging Daniel to go to see his young daughter. Daniel wants to get rid of him and recommends a visit to a psychiatrist. When the friend slits his wrists while in the bath with his daughter, Laura suggests that they attend the funeral. She then accepts care of the little girl, Julia, until a relative comes forward. She is completely happy looking after Julia.
It is not the same with Daniel. Rather, Julia keeps reminding him of the younger sister of his dead friend. Flashbacks indicate that the two boys were responsible for the death of this young sister. Daniel’s mood darkens. He drinks, feels haunted by the events of the past which are shown in more detail. This leads to quite a melodramatic ending, the results of the vicious outcomes of a guilty conscience.
Character studies with the touch of the ghostly.
Directed by Kirsten Sheridan
Just as well the director answered questions after the screening – to give the meaning intended for what was a deeply difficult film to sit through. The director is Kirsten Sheridan (Disco Pigs, August Rush), daughter of director, Jim Sheridan.
After the American experience of August Rush, she wanted to go back to Ireland and make a small budget film in her own way and in her own time. While she has the credit, ‘written by..’, she pointed out that she had done a basic treatment for producers and relied on the cast (most new to film) to improvise on the (very limited) information she suggested about their characters. They did not know the ending.
Why the film is difficult to watch is that it spends more than an hour looking at a group of five young adults who break into a wealthy family house and proceed to trash it and revel in the mess and the destruction. Not a pretty sight, and upsetting for those who would feel invaded and humiliated by this behaviour.
There are several plot twists, especially at the end with the birth of a baby. The director pointed out that she had no intentions of making a reference to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus, despite the expletive at that moment. It was only after someone noted that the birth in a tent erected in the house and the boys standing in front of the mother and child that she realised that there must be something from the Irish unconscious).
Tough going but a picture of alienated youth and the loss in Ireland of ties (including the Church) that made for connections and not this kind of irresponsible, drink and drug fuelled, anti-social behaviour.
DON 2 THE DON MUST DIE
Shah Rukh Khan, Florian Lukas, Om Puri, Prianka Chopra.
Directed by Farhan Akhtar
Don 2 received quite some prominence at the Berlinale, many wondering what a Bollywood gangster film was doing there. Answer: a good half of the film was made in Berlin, so it was on home ground, so to speak. Berlin looks quite attractive and, at times, spectacular, what with familiar landmarks, impossible car chases on key roads, and lots of explosions and activities and stunts in and outside of banks.
Even if one has not seen the first Don film, there are enough indications and some flashbacks to make sure audiences feel comfortable watching the sequel. This film is quite a show so, if it is not as good as the original, the original must have been quite something!
Watching Don 2, we realise that Bollywood is learning a lot (and borrowing) from the Hong Kong action and gangster conventions, some martial arts fights as well, but learning and borrowing most from the action genres of Hollywood (and wanting to outdo Hollywood at times, and succeeding). Hence a French Riviera opening with European gangsters planning to kill the Asian drug kingpin, Don, followed by a spectacular Malaysian river ride turning into fights and drug dealer machine gun deaths. There are some attractive scenes in KL and Zurich, but then it is on to Berlin, with a complicated plot for Don to steal the plates used for making the Euro notes.
This means prison scenes (for Don to break out with an old enemy he wants to use in Berlin), suave political soirees, the aforementioned chases and the complex carrying out of Don’s plan.
This is all possible because Indian superstar, X Khan (who does fights, song and dance, including the final credits, and ruthless crime) is such a charming rogue (and almost complete narcissist) that, despite ourselves, we rather like him. Which also means that we see very little of his plotting and planning which is always supersmart and we accept it all. (Khan tried something completely different with his portrayal of an autistic man in My Name is Khan.)
Of course, it is a business and political story as well as a police investigation with Roma, an old flame from the original, out to capture him and Om Puri as the police chief who wants to arrest Don before retiring.
So, Bollywood trying to better and best Hollywood in the action genre – and succeeding.
L’ENFANT D’ EN HAUT/ SISTER
Lea Seydoux, Kacey Motter Klein, Martin Compston, Gillian Anderson,
Directed by Ursula Meier.
While the English title, Sister, focuses on the character, Louise, played by Lea Seydoux, it is only towards the end of the film that we are surprised at its meaning and significance. However, with the focus on 12 year old Simon throughout the whole film, the French title seems more appropriate.
Simon is a precocious 12 year old, played with skill, a blend of duplicity and naivety, by Kacey Motter Klein. He spends his days at the top of the mountains, pilfering skiers’ clothes, gloves and helmets, and some food, while downright stealing expensive skis. Some things he gives to his sister, others he sells to the local kids in the valley. He, and they, have no conscience about stealing, no sense of scruple. At first, Simon’s activities might rouse some misplaced amusement from the audience, for many it will be irritation at the emphasis on the details of his actions.
But the film grows on the audience as we see Simon and Louise together, he more responsible at home than she, who can’t hold a job and seems interested only in boyfriend’s their cars and a good time. She depends on Simon for some ready cash as well as some clothes.
The two people that Simon comes into contact with on top are a Scots cook as a restaurant (Martin Compston) who eventually connives in the ski stealing and hiding, and Gillian Anderson a mother who befriends Simon only to be disillusioned by him.
What is going to happen to him? Will he have a different life in any way or simply grow from being a little criminal to and adult one? The film offers some hope in the relationship between Louise and Simon, the need for love on the part of each of them. After a night on the mountain when the tourists and workers have packed up, there is a symbolic last moment as two cable cars pass each other, Louise in one, going up for Simon, and he, after time to think, is coming down to home.
EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE
Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, Viola Davis, Max von Sydow, Jeffrey Wright, Zoe Caldwell.
Directed by Stephen Daldry.
Even a decade or more after September 11th 2001, the images and events are still firmly implanted in many people’s memories, some having to process the shock and the grief, especially for friends and relatives whose bodies have never been recovered. It was traumatic for Americans who judged they were under attack. It stepped up the war on terror (though this is not an element in this film). This is the story of one family and a young boy’s love and attachment to his father who was killed while atr a meeting in one of the twin towers.
There have been a number of films about September 11th, including Paul Greengrass’ United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre. It has featured as a theme in such popular films as Remember Me. This film makes the events very personal.
The title comes from a book that the young boy, Oskar Schell, makes for his mother, a life memory culminating in what he calls the ‘worst day’.
Because we know very soon that Oskar’s father, Tom, has died in the collapse of the buildings, it is necessary for the actor in that role to make a quick and lasting impact before his death since he will be seen in only the flashbacks. Tom is played by Tom Hanks which is a wise choice for the audience to respond strongly to him. On the other hand, Oskar is so attached to his father that he neglects his mother, even wishing that she had died instead of his father. Again, a strong piece of casting is needed for the mother to make an impact even though she is put in the background until the final part of the film. She is played by Sandra Bullock, another wise piece of casting. She has some very emotionally demanding scenes with Oskar which she plays very well – though the revelation of how she has protected him since his father’s death comes as a surprise (some might say that it seems too far-fetched).
But, the film belongs to young Thomas Horn who is in almost every scene. While a lot of his communication with the audience is in constant voiceover, his performance is very strong indeed. He tells a character that he was once tested for Aspergers. It may well be that he is an Aspergers’ character, full of exact, detailed information which he rattles off, statistics, scientific information, blunt opinions, phrased very directly. His expression of emotion is very limited, lavished on his father and then his memory of his father.
When he accidentally finds a key with ‘Black’ written on an envelope, he decides to find the lock that the key will open. His father had encouraged games of wit and intelligence, expeditions which would make Oskar think but also communicate with people, something he dreads. Oskar devises a scheme for visiting every person named Black in the New York phone books. It is an obsession but forms the core of the film, Oskar meeting people and listening to their stories. Another family favourite is his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell). Through her, he discovers an eccentric old man (Max von Sydow) who rents from his grandmother. He is invited to accompany Oskar on his visits – and it is through the old man that Oskar learns about people, life and overcoming his fears.
The supporting cast includes John Goodman the concierge of the apartment block, and Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright who play a crucial role in discovering where the key belongs – and another father and son issue, this time one of hostility. While Oskar cannot talk with his mother, it is the old man and Jeffrey Wright who enable him to spill forth his story, pouring it out in hurried detail and relief.
Direction is by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliott, The Hours, The Reader). His four films, including this one have all received Oscar nominations for Best Film. The film is very American in sensibility about family and relationships and some audiences will find it too emotional. And, of course, it has to be forcefully American in sensibility in dealing with respect for the victims and their families of 9/11.
Screening out of Competition
FLOWERS OF WAR
Christian Bale, Ni Ni,
Directed by Zhang Yimou.
The siege and rape of Nanking is still vivid in the Chinese memory. The attack by the Japanese on the Chinese capital, the savagery of the treatment of the citizens, more than 200.000 deaths, in 1937 are alive more than 70 years later. And, there have been a number of films portraying aspects of the experience. John Rabe brings in the German and international connections. Chen Kaige’s Forever Enthralled, enters through stories of theatre and opera. The most comprehensive, moving and shocking film is City of Life and Death (SIGNIS prize in San Sebastian, 2009). Veteran director, Zhang Yimou, has chosen to focus on a small group and their treatment as a symbol of the whole experience.
There are two groups of women in this film. Rather, one is a group of schoolgirls, convent-educated, who seem refuge in the Cathedral. The other is a group of prostitutes who clamour at the gate of the Catholic compound, are reluctantly let in and are looked down on by the girls. A young orphan, George, has been left by the parish priest to protect the girls.
Inside the compound, the prostitutes take over the cellar, while the girls stay in the dormitory above. There are sequences of squabble and antagonism. But, the main war is outside.
Zhang Yimou has been interested in Chinese history for some decades. Initially he went into a more distant past but also made some small films of local stories. Then he went martial arts with such spectacles as Hero and House of a Thousand Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower. This time, he stages most effective street battles and the work of a Chinese sniper picking off a troop of Japanese soldiers who have entered the Cathedral and brutalised the school girls who have diverted attention away from the prostitutes in the cellar.
But the central character is an American mortician who has been caught in the crossfire on his way to prepare bodies for burial at the Cathedral. He encounters two of the girls and follows them. He is mercenary at heart and wants to be paid for his help, searching the poor boxes, finding altar wine and consuming it (not religiously) and making George desperate. He has no objections to the presence of the prostitutes.
But, like Humphrey Bogart almost sixty years before him in The Left Hand of God (also set in China), he disguises himself as a priest and moves to defend the schoolgirls when they are attacked. He is John Miller, but now they call him Fr John. He is played by Christian Bale as a rather extroverted and swaggering opportunist.
Much of the film is watching Fr John grow into his role as priest (not 100% edifying) but showing the ideals of a priest in practice. The other principal characters, besides George, the ever-present and helpful assistant, are the leader of the prostitutes, Mo, and the leader of the schoolgirls, Shu.
The polite Japanese commander who apologises for the attack on the girls (and believes that Fr John is really Fr John) comes to hear the girls sing and books them to perform at a celebration of the taking of Nanking. Fr Joh refuses but is pressurised – which brings the film to a final climax as to how the schoolgirls will be protected from the less than honourable intentions of the celebrating Japanese. Which brings the film to quite a moving ending. While the background canvas of the film is large, this film itself is more of a miniature, in parts authentically brutal, in parts somewhat romantic, of what was happening around the city under the occupation.
Screening out of Competition
FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE
Jet Li, Chen Kun.
Directed by Tsui Hark.
A film beyond review! And, for most audiences, a film beyond easy synopsis.
This means that potential audiences must make their decisions on the technical qualities of the film – they are so strong so that the plot does not really matter.
What matters is the spectacular photography of a Chinese landscape that evokes Chinese history, dynasties, power struggles, warriors, despots. It is not meant to be realistic. This is a fantasy story – especially when a golden palace emerges from desert sands at the end. A pregnant servant flees from the overlord and his scheming mistress. The power behind the throne goes in pursuit with a retinue of soldiers. In the meantime, a legendary hero (Jet Li) has attacked the palace eunuch and brought down his rule. Meanwhile, out in the countryside, another warrior comes to the rescue of the servant. Soon there are more warriors, more battles, heroes versus military. Eventually, all arrive at the Dragon Inn – battles galore. And then the golden palace.
At least, that was an attempt to try to say something about the plot. Obviously, it is a lot more than that.
But, the main thing to say is that the colour photography has been done with 3D, and some of the most vivid 3D you ever hope to see is up there all the time on the screen. And, when it comes to the frequent action sequences, the 3D enhances them beyond expectations. A lot of it is excitingly ‘in your face’. For those who feel they may have got over all the flying that was so amazing for the first time in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but here it is again, more spectacular and acrobatic than before. And so on...
If that doesn’t appeal, then forget it.
If you have a fondness for films of Chinese history (and those directed by Tsui Hark), for political intrigue, for action beyond action, then make sure you see it in the 3D version.
Jurgen Vogel, Birgit Minichmayr.
Directed by Matthias Glassner
Gnade is ultimately about mercy, about confession and forgiveness, possibilities of grace in ordinary and in troubled lives.
The setting for this story was, originally, Copenhagen, but the director had visited the town of Hammerfest, far north of the Arctic Circle, with its processing plant as well as its total absence of sunlight from mid-November until mid-January. He moves a German family here – so that the marriage could recover some stability, the father working at the plant, the mother at the hospital, their son at school, and their buying a farm to manage.
The centre of the film is a familiar situation. Late at night on her way home from work, the mother hits something with her car. She can’t see what it was and drives home. Her husband drives back and cannot find whatever it was. Maria panics and forces her husband to keep the whole event secret. She has a long speech of rationalisation which makes a big challenge to the audience to decide what they would do in similar circumstances, whether they would rationalise or go to the police.
While life continues, including an episode with the son who is mean to a fellow student and does not own up to it, Niels decides he must stop the affair he was having with a co-worker at the plant. Maria finds more support from Niels which changes him and re-kindles their love. This leads them, especially as they meet the mother and father of the dead girl at church and with work, to make a decision about telling the truth to the parents.
The scene where they do go, especially in showing the bewildered reaction of the bereaved parents, wondering what they should do, highlights the possibilities of justice and/or mercy.
Gina Carano, Ewan Mc Gregor, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Angarano, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Steven Sodebergh is a director who has been able, for over twenty years, to move easily from arthouse films to popular films. After all, it was he who directed the three Oceans movies. He has also tried out a number of genres. Prior to Haywire, he made the medical and world epidemic drama, Contagion.
He must have been impressed by multi-martial arts champion, Gina Carino. Here she has the opportunity to show her considerable skills in doing her own stuntwork. She plays an employee of a company which carries out covert operations which governments are unwilling to admit to or express any knowledge of. When one of these operations is undermined and the person to be rescued is assassinated, she goes out on her own enquiry. It is complicated because she has several possible bosses who commissioned these covert tasks. They include Ewan Mc Gregor (with an odd haircut!), Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas. Besides these three, the Channing Tatum as a co-worker and Michael Angarano as a young man whose car she takes, abducting him and telling her story so that he can report her version when questioned.
Actually, the director and cast are much better than the film itself, which is complicated, of course, requires audience attention – but does not stay in the memory.
IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY
Zana Marjanovic, Goran Kostic, Rade Srbedzija.
Directed by Angelina Jolie.
While the first half of the 1990s saw the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of apartheid in South Africa, it also saw the vicious wars in the Balkans and the genocide in Rwanda. We have been reminded of all these events, the good and the evil, in many films. This film shows us the years 1992-1995, Serbs and Bosnians, ethnic cleansing, mass murder atrocities and the siege of Sarajevo, the longest since World War II. While we have seen Savior, Welcome to Sarajevo, Grbavica and Storm and other Balkan War films, this film does not shirk the bitterness, the prejudice and the bloodshed, but it also wants to suggest ambivalences through a love story in the savagery of the war. That it cannot end happily in the 1990s is not a surprise.
The biblical image for peace is a land flowing with milk and honey. An image for war is a land flowing with blood and honey (the former abundant, the latter in short supply).
We see cruel round-ups and deportations, women forced into servicing the soldiers, cooking and sewing but also as victims of repeated rape. We see guerilla attacks, sniper shootings in the streets and the massacre at Srbvenicia.
But our principal focus is on a young woman, an artist, Ajla (XX), beautiful, Muslim, who is in love before the war with a Serb policeman. When she is rounded-up with a group of women and interned, she is protected by her policeman (XX) who is now a military leader. The screenplay voices the difficulties, the feelings of guilt, mutual recriminations as well as a deepening love. The military man is pressurized into wariness of the Muslims by his father, a commanding general (RS) who resents his family’s past servitude to the Muslims, the cruelty exercised on them during World War II. We understand, while we are horrified, how he can relentlessly pursue ethnic cleansing. His scene with Ajla where she sketches his portrait and he delivers his angrily hostile speech, brings home the horrors of Balkan history, ethnic and religious bigotry.
Of course, there is the Angelina Jolie factor. She has written the screenplay and directed the film, obviously with sensitivity, especially towards the women and their abuse and pain and humiliations. They are, for her, a cause worth making a film about. The screenplay, while highly critical of the Serb attack, shows the complex issues on both sides – and the world observing but not intervening until years had passed. Not many audiences saw Angelina Jolie and Clive Owen in Beyond Borders (2003), a film too difficult for the average audience (which, unfortunately, might be the case here) which took up issues in the famine in Ethiopia in 1984, the atrocities in Cambodia and political issues in Chechnya and the work of UN agencies. But that film and this one show that Angelina Jolie is preoccupied, not just with glamour and her career, but also with the social conscience. It would be a pity to overlook this film because of any difficulty with her celebrity status.
Screening out of Competition
JAYNE MANSFIELD’S CAR
Robert Duvall, John Hurt, Billy Bob Thornton, Kevin Bacon, Frances O’ Connor, Ray Stevenson,
Directed by Billy Bob Thornton.
Billy Bob Thornton was a writer and director before his breakthrough acting role and Oscar nomination for Sling Blade. He directed All the Pretty Horses and Daddy and Them, the latter focusing on a family coming together – for better and often for worse. This film follows something of the same formula. The setting is a small town in Alabama in 1969 and draws on stories and memories from Thornton’s past.
The title is certainly arresting. The car does make an appearance later in the film, a rather bizarre scene as it is exhibited for curious visitors, and comments made about what actually happened. But the scene is more symbolic even though it is presented quite realistically. It sets a tone to the US of 1969.
It is a period of anti-Vietnam war protest, which does not impress the locals, especially the family patriarch, Jim, who is dismayed that his middle-aged son turned hippy and protestor is the leader of the march. Jim is played as a crusty old man, a quiet curmudgeon by 80 year old Robert Duvall. The protestor son who was a medic in World War II (his father being a medic in World War I) is played by Kevin Bacon, who can combine being in his 50s with looking and acting more youthfully.
At home are two more sons. Billy Bob thornton is Skip whose life has not amounted to much since he was a pilor in World War II and shot down. He has quite a collection of cars. Other son Jimbo (Robert Patrick) sounds like a chip off the old block in attitudes and behaviour. Jimbo’s son is becoming a teenage 1960s rebel, into the music and willing to try out drugs. Then there is a daughter, Donna, with a loud-mouthed, girth-expanding former athlete.
That might seem enough for a film, but there is much more. Jim receives news from England that his wife who walked out on him and her children and married an Englishman has died and wants to be buried at home.
The English, sounding particularly British, and lamenting the heat of Alabama are John Hurt as the husband, Kingsley, with his adult children, Philip (Ron Stevenson) and Camilla (Frances O’ Connor).
It actually goes better than expected, but it still occasions personal revelations and nagging problems.
The film is interesting in its way, but more through some vvery good bits and pieces rather than as a whole. The performances from the veteran cast are impressive and the writing in some set pieces throughout the film are Billy Bob Thornton’s writing at its best. Discussions between Duvall and Hurt, especially when Jim wants to know from Kingsley how he met his wife (a funny story concerning the statue of St George in Hyde Park). Two scenes with Thornton and Frances O’ Connor also stand out, she invited to do a nude poetry recital (Charge of the Light Brigade) for Skip’s sexual satisfaction, and her listening to Skip’s quietly moving story of his war experience and being shot down. Kevin Bacon also has two good scenes with Duvall about a letter he wrote his father during the war and received no answer. Late in the film there is an unanticipated answer. And a scene where a drunken Hurt attacks his son for the disgrace of the fall of Singapore and his not being a real soldier because he was held as a POW by the Japanese.
So, there are some flat and somewhat unconvincing spots, but there are plenty of fine spots like those just mentioned.
KEEP THE LIGHTS ON
Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth, Julianne Nicholson.
Directed by Ira Sachs.
A New York story that takes place over almost a decade from 1998. Erik (Thure Linhardt) is a Danish film-maker investigating a photographer from the 1940s. he relies on phone sex but begins a relationship with one of his contacts, Paul (Zachary Booth). Both are committed, but Paul is something of a high flyer in the city and has drug and alcohol habits. Though he is persuaded to go into rehab, he is not quite the same again and the relationship has its ups and downs as Erik makes an ultimatum at one of the rehab sessions, is successful in winning a Teddy Award at the Berlinale in 2004 (and this film actually won the award in 2012!), and becomes more desperate about Paul’s condition. He is supported by his sister and by Claire who works with him on the film.
With the increasing number of more mainstream films on gay relationships, this film makes an attempt to portray the serious ups and downs of a relationship.
JUST THE WIND/ CSAK A SZEL
Directed by Bence Fliegauf.
A brief film about Hungarian prejudice against gypsies. The film says it is not a documentary about the recent attacks by local Hungarians in which quite a number of gypsies were injured and six were killed. Up to the making of the film, there had been no definite charges laid.
Basically, the film is a story in the quite humdrum lives of a gypsy family who live at the edge of a country town. Mother wakes early and feeds her ageing father. The daughter gets up and prepares for school which she likes. Her younger brother gets up late, skips school and wanders the countryside, going especially to his hidden cache of things he finds.
Mother has different jobs, scything public areas of long grass, doing menial cleaning. She is harassed on the way home. The daughter suffers insinuations from a teacher, but enjoys an afternoon near a lake. So does the son. Eventually, they are at home, go to bed. They hear noises in the night – and the family is attacked violently.
This is very plain, matter-of-fact film-making, almost documentary-like. While it is not exciting, deliberately so, it is a very worthy film, exposing bigotry against the gypsies which can boil up into violence, and asking for some sympathy and understanding for people who are targets of xenophobia.
LOST IN PARADISE
Luong Manh Hai, Linh Son.
Directed by Vu Ngoc Dang.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon in all the subtitles for this film) is hardly paradise. But to young men leaving home and venturing into the city for better jobs, better living and more money, it seems, initially, to be paradise. Needless to say, this film will show that it is not.
It has a seedy setting, the world of the prostitutes, male and female, who stand along the roads waiting for customers, mainly on motor bikes, to pick them up. While the prostitutes, on the whole, are portrayed sympathetically, their pimps are not. By the end of the film, a lot of the dialogue has been devoted to thinking through the effects of this kind of life (whether it be his fate as one of the main characters states or choice) and options made against it. A post-script states that the area we see in the film has been cleared and a supermarket built – though this only shifts the locales.
The other feature of the film is that the central characters are gay men, a new theme for Vietnamese films, but a theme familiar from Filipino and Singapore feature films. It is a story of love and its being exploited and corrupted. And, for the most part, it is a love story (with an emotional soundtrack and songs accompanying it), obviously making a case for men to be able to come out and be accepted and not be caught up in the prostitution business.
But, for long stretches of the film, we are treated to a different story altogether (and the two strands never meet). A mentally impaired collector of recyclables, befriends a woman on the streets and is harassed by her pimps. But, he is given a duck egg which he tends, very tenderly, until it hatches and then rears the ducklling. We spend a great deal of time with the man and his duck – a nice and compassionate story.
The film is well crafted and photographed with an emotional appeal in its comic story and in its tragic story.
LA MER A L’ AUBE/ CALM AT SEA
France/ Germany, 2012.
Leo Paul Salmain, Ulrich Mattes.
Directed by Volker Schloendorff.
Volker Schloendorff has made Oscar winning films like The Tin Drum as well as smaller films like The Ninth Day, the story of a priest in Dachau sent on mission to persuade the archbishop of Luxembourg to support the Third Reich. This is one of his smaller films, based on a story he heard when he was young and was learning French in France after the war.
In 1941, the Nazis with the help of the police of the Vichy regime had rounded up undesirables, suspects, Communists and interned them in local camps. When a prominent SS officer is killed by resistance fighters in the streets of Nantes, Hitler demanded 150 hostages be shot. The local commander was more humane and wanted to avoid such cruelty and explained that this was no way to win the hearts and minds of the people. A French officer working for the high command made some pleas. Local collaborators suggested names for the list.
The film introduces us to a range of undesirables in the camp, some younger men arrested because of their parents, older men who had a strong ideological stance. They are all on the list. While the film shows us some humane details (the 17 year old who flirts with a girl in the women’s internment camp), the main focus is on the choice of the hostages, their reactions, their preparation for execution.
The film shows the officer in the camp showing his men how the killing of the hostages is done – which gives the audience a great deal of time to identify with the hostages, observe their responses, empathise and speculate how they would act in similar circumstances.
The film also raises the issue of 150 hostages dying for one SS officer and whether this was sound Resistance strategy. There is also a small sub-plot of a German soldier who collapses rather than shoot. The author Ernst Junger is also a character, asked to write a personal account for the record of what happened. (He is played by Ulrich Mattes, the priest in The Ninth Day and Goebbels in Downfall).
The film is a German- French co-production, keeping alive the memory of war incidents seventy years earlier.
Theo Alexander, Tamila Koulieva.
Directed by Spiros Stathoulopoulos.
Most of us are aware of the monasteries of Mt Athos, those loft retreats on the tops of Greek mountains, centres of Greek Orthodox monasticism. Most of us may not be aware of other monasteries in the plains of Thessaly in northwestern Greece. Again, monasteries built, seemingly impossibly on the tops of rock formations rising from the plains, mountains as well as very high, thinner rocks which point like fingers to the sky (or, which may be forgiveable thought, since this film explores the carnal desires of a monk and a nun, phallic symbols).
At times Meteora is magnificent to look at, the natural beauty and extraordinary formations as well as fascinating glimpses of sky at different times of day. It is also amazing at times to look at as, after the opening credits and their iconic power, the film uses animation to further develop the plot as well as to suggest mythical and symbolic stories and themes. The icons also offer a clue as to how to interpret the action and characters. While they may be easily dismissed as artificial and not deeply developed, it could be argued that we should be looking at them as moving icons, gaze at them, as the protagonists do with the icons in their cells. We gaze at them for meaning rather than mere psychological insights.
As mentioned, this is a story of a monk and a nun and their desires. Easy film material these days in terms of church and sexuality. However, it is all presented her in the context of monastic vows and spirituality, in terms of ascetic practices and physical penance to control temptation (and the consequent suppression of instincts which leads to rigid repression which can shatter at short notice – and does). To this extent, the film is an interesting contribution to reflections on religious celibacy, its possibilities and impossibilities.
The monk (not necessarily ordained) has been in his community on top of his mountain for years. He is devout in prayer and rituals, assisting at liturgy. The nun is a visitor from Russia. The relationship is suggested immediately with an exchange of neck chains. Then the monk uses his mirror reflections to contact the nun. He also prepares a picnic meal of goat (which somebody reminded us is an animal symbol of lust), which they enjoy with wine, talk flirtatiously but raise the theme of despair and freedom – that all sin can be forgiven except despair. The monk physically accosts the nun, but they then go to their cells and pray again.
There follows an explicit sexual scene with the nun in her room. The writer-director could be accused of chauvinist sexism in not presenting the monk who seems more driven than the nun. As expected, their love/lust is consummated. Must they both then leave monastery and convent?
Throughout the film, Psalm 23 is interspersed in its entirety, offering a scriptural comment on the relationship and their stands before God. Icons, liturgy and communion are featured with a background score of arias and chant.
While the animation literally shows a fall as well as the nun’s previously unseen hair growing like Rapunzel’s to form a bridge between the monk and nun, the most striking is the sequence where the monk goes symbolically into a labyrinth and is lost. At the centre, he finds an icon of Christ crucified. He hammers nails into Jesus’ hands and blood not only flows but gushes forth, flooding the labyrinth, panel by panel, the monk floating on the blood until he is out and saved. He and the nun appear as small figures in the ocean of Christ’s blood which is poured out in abundance.
To say, as some have said, that this is simply the old story of forbidden love, is to focus on the obvious but not on the abundant visual and musical detail that invites us to contemplate religious love and love of God, desire and celibacy, infidelity in vows, God’s fidelity and an abundance of forgiveness for those who do not despair.
One credibility challenge is that the monk looks like a bearded movie star, cast for being handsome rather than for a life in a monastery. The actress playing the nun looks maturely beautiful. And then the press notes tell us that the actor for the monk, Theo Alexander, has been a regular on television’s True Blood for some years!
MY BROTHER THE DEVIL
Said Taghmoui, James Floyd, Fady Elsayed.
Directed by Sally El Hosaini
Writer-director, Sally el Hosaini, has an Egyptian father and a Welsh mother. She draws on both heritages in this film. Set in London, it features an Egyptian family, long since in England. Father is with London Transport, mother is a home-maker. There are two sons, Rashid (James Floyd) and Mo (Fady Elsayed). Rash is older and has been involved in local gangs and drug deliveries with relations and peers. However, he is wanting to move out. Mo has just finished school and is ripe for being caught up in the same gang work, despite being robbed and then witnessing a murder in the street.
So far, so familiar, although the director gives a lot more attention than in other similar films to characters and atmosphere. Rash boxes, sees a girlfriend. Mo like literature, meets up with a nice Nigerian girl, idealises Rash.
When Rash takes on a job as an assistant photographer to Sayyid (Siad Taghmaghoui), things begin to change – as expected for Mo who sets out on a downhill path, not as expected for Rash who has to come to deeper terms of his identity than he knew about. Mo is even more upset at Rash and his behaviour after he spies on him and then spreads rumours that he is a terrorist.
There is an inevitable violent clash but it is cathartic for Rash and for his relationship with Mo who has to move to greater understanding and tolerance.
POSTCARDS FROM THE ZOO
Directed by Edwin.
Edwin is emerging as a young Indonesian talent fostered by several European and American talent seminars and festivals.
When you use ‘Postcards’ in your title, it enables you to be as free as you like – or as lazy as you like. If there is a criticism about a sequence or about continuity or about obscurity in the plot, you can always say that it is a postcard and, so, necessarily incomplete, or that it is symbolic.
This is a fair criticism of Edwin and his film. He uses words like ‘dream’, ‘fantasy’, ‘poetry’ and he has more than a point. But, his selection of episodes, their connectedness or lack of connectedness means that the audience has to do a lot of the supplying of meaning. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but this series of Postcards makes huge leaps, dallies on some images, hurries over others.
It is the story of Lana who was abandoned in a zoo when a little girl. Edwin also inserts encyclopedia like brief entries at times about zoos, relocations and treatment of animals, to make us ponder or to scratch our heads!
Lana loves giraffes, especially the one at the zoo, tall and stately as it is – and the screenplay offers more information about giraffes that most of us never knew. She loves working in the zoo. When she meets a tall, dark and handsome magician dressed as a cowboy, she is drawn to him and, dressed as an Indian girl (of cowboys and Indians origins), participates in his acts. When he literally goes up in flames and disappears (the actor and the audience deserved more clues here), she suddenly becomes Number 33 at a massage parlour where we are treated to some training scenes and some scenes with clients. No wonder she goes back to the zoo and, unable to do it before but now liberated, she is able to touch her beloved giraffe. So, there you are.
REBELLE/ WAR WITCH
Directed by Kim Nguyen.
We have seen stories of children in African countries abducted from their villages and forced to go to war with rebel armies. This is another of those although Komono, the child at the centre of the film, is a girl, taken at 12. In a scene of horror, she is forced to shoot her parents to save them from a death by machete. She is trained in fighting, taken in by the chief and proclaimed his war witch.
The film was made in Congo, Kinshasa, but no country is named in the film. Which means that there is no real political context for the story, simply violent rebels fighting the powers that be. While this means we concentrate on Komono’s story, we miss the political edge.
The story becomes more complicated when Komono escapes with Magician one of the main young soldiers. They want to marry and are determined to find a rare white rooster necessary for the ritual. When all seems to be right, soldiers attack again, leaving a pregnant Komono wandering the countryside, wanting to bury her parents before she gives birth. This emphasis on the dead, many here visualised as ghosts, is a feature of the film.
The film aims at an emotional impact and succeeds with the character of Komono. The picture of Congo is of unrest in the poor countryside, but that is context rather than a theme.
A ROYAL AFFAIR
Mads Mikkelson, Alicia Vikander,
Directed by Nikolaj Arcel.
An interesting costume drama where sets and costumes have not been stinted. It certainly looks the part.
The setting is Denmark in the 1760s and 1770s, a valuable story for Danish history and a story not too familiar for other audiences. The opening alerts the audience to the Enlightenment and how it flourished in this century, a return to reason instead of faith (and superstition), a dream of equality and dignity for all, an ideal of freedom for society. The French Revolution was just over a decade away as the film ends.
This is also the story of Princess Caroline Matilda of England, bound to an arranged marriage to Christian VII of Denmark. A young, beautiful and cultured woman, she leaves with high hopes. They are soon dashed. The king is mentally unstable, skittish in public manners and profligate in behaviour.
The film does begin by letting the audience know that Caroline sealed her fate and exile by an affair with Dr Johann Struensee. She is writing to her children to explain what she has done.
Dr Struensee (Mads Mikkelson, like a passive Jack Palance) is an Enlightenment thinker and writer (anonymously). Friends suggest he become physician to Christian who is on a year’s tour of Europe. The two click (helped by a love of quotations from Shakespeare) and Johann is able to guide the king to better behaviour. He becomes chief adviser, despite hostility from the nobility and the Council, eventually replacing the Council, and pushing through all kinds of enlightened and progressive legislation, from inoculation against smallpox, to the abolition of scensorship and capital punishment. For a while, Denmark set a model for the rest of Europe.
Someone quotes how Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere destroyed Camelot. It is apt, of course, when Johann and the queen (initially hostile but impressed by his ideas and manner) begin a liaison. A jealous Dowager queen and conservative nobles are able to arrest John and banish the queen. They also restore the kingdom to the status quo.
The film offers enough to reflect on with insights into this experience of royalty and Enlightenment. Cahracter performances are strong. This seems a story of folly and failure, a postscript adds that Caroline’s son, Frederick, staged a coup when he was sixteen and began a fifty five year reign that saw the implementation of so many of the Enlightenment ideas.
Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Domnhall Gleeson, Aidan Gillen, Gillian Anderson,
Directed by James Marsh.
Andrea Riseborough has already played a young Margaret Thatcher for television, a worker in Made in Dagenham, the infatuated Rose in the remake of Brighton Rock and the Duchess of Windsor in W.E. Here she is the central character and holds the film together, a fine performance.
She plays Collette Mc Veigh from a militant IRA family in Belfast. As a child, she has been selfishly but unwittingly responsible for a family tragedy, 1973. Twenty years later, with peace talks getting under way, she is a bomb carrier on the London Underground, part of an angry groups led by her brothers. However, the British government have been shadowing her – and make her an offer she can’t refuse, freedom to be with her son and be a ‘tout’, informer for the British.
Her minder is played in his often serious fashion by Clive Owen. The British head in Belfast is played by Gillian Anderson (doing seriously what she had to do for comedy in Johnny English Reborn).
Action is quite suspenseful at times in this narrow suburban area of Belfast, Collette’s ordinary life and the pressures on her to make a weekly rendezvous, her having to participate in an assassination attempt but escaping, coming under suspicion by a paranoid local boss who thinks she is a tout.
A quiet resolution of the proceedings seems to be emerging when the plot twists, sadly, and the ending is not what we are expecting at all. This is the Troubles in a more modest but deadly 1990s.
Directed by Michael Gomes
By the time that the affair portrayed in the second part of this film as highly criminal and sinful, extremely scandalous, the world had moved beyond this kind of condemnation and language, the 1950s and 1960s. This moral stance of the characters is portrayed highly melodramatically and lacks a fair amount of credibility.
But, the film starts in an entirely different way, making a point about white colonialism in a bizarrely symbolic story of a great white explorer and his train of carriers in Mozambique, haunted by the death of his wife and leaping into a river to confront a crocodile and, probably, fulfil his death wish.
The fact that this (and the whole film) is shot in black and white on a box-formatted screen like the olden days’ movies and that there is no dialogue only voiceover makes it look experimental movie-making while, at the same time, with the elevated (‘poetic’?) voiceover from the director himself, it seems quite pretentious.
Then the first part of the film, box-format but with dialogue is set in modern day Lisbon, portraying a kind middle-aged woman who becomes involved with a dying woman from the Mozambique white elite and her black friend. The kind lady tracks down an old man, an acquaintance (more than that we learn in the second part) of the dying woman.
In the second part, back we go to Mozambique and the story of the woman, her growing up, hunting skills, marriage and, particularly her affair with a dashing, pencil-moustached Italian. There is another plot element with the Italian’s friendship with a former seminarian who creates a band and tours in Africa, moving from the songs of the 1950s to the 1960s (‘Be My Baby’) and the Twist.
But…, still black and white, back to no heard dialogue (we just see the characters mouthing) and an increasingly ponderous and pretentious voiceover from the director, even to reading their correspondence. So, it’s like a silent film in some ways with the voiceover doing most of the narrative and the emoting, the characters merely illustrating what is being said – it could be visual radio.
At one stage, there is mention that the heroine was an adviser on an RKO flop (whose producer killed himself) with a title like ‘It doesn’t snow on Kilimanjaro anymore’. The unkind thought arose that the RKO film used this kind of plot and dialogue… With acknowledgement to the experiments with technique but the laden language of the voiceover was far too much for the general triteness of the plot and characters before our eyes.
LA VIERGE, LES COPTES, ET MOI…
Directed by Namir Abdel Meseeh.
Quite a crowd-pleasing documentary.
The director engages his audience by showing his quest to get his film made – and by featuring his mother, a strong-minded and mouthed lady to say the least, whom he has in tow throughout the film. Come to think of it, she really has him in tow.
The family is Coptic having moved from Egypt to France in the early 1970s. Though he is not a believer, he has become fascinated by reports of apparitions of Mar