SIGNIS REVIEWS BERLINALE 2015
AS WE WERE DREAMING
BIG FATHER, SMALL FATHER AND OTHER STORIES/ CHE VA, CON VA
CHASUKE’S JOURNEY/ TEN NO CHASUKE
EISENSTEIN IN GUANAJUTA
EVERY THING WILL BE FINE
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
GONE WITH THE BULLETS
HISTOIRE DE JUDAS
I AM MICHAEL
JOURNAL D’ UNE FEMME DE CHAMBRE/ DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID
KNIGHT OF CUPS
LOVE AND MERCY
NOBODY WANTS THE NIGHT
PEARL BUTTON, THE/ EL BOTON DE NACAR
QUEEN OF THE DESERT
THAT SUGAR FILM
TORNERANNO I PRATI/ GREENERY WILL RETURN
UNDER ELECTRIC CLOUDS
WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?
UK, 2015, 90 minutes, Colour.
Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James.
Directed by Andrew Haigh.
45 Years is one of those quiet and modest dramas that has quite an effect on its audience.
The 45 Years of the title are those of the married life of the central protagonists, Kate and Jeff. The film takes place over a week, a week of preparation for the weekend celebration of the marriage. Captions are given for the day by day drama.
Katie and Geoff seem a typical enough English couple. They are played most effectively, with a great deal of understatement, by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. It is not a surprise to learn that they won awards at the Berlin Film Festival for Best Actress and Best Actor.
Andrew Haigh, who wrote and directed a perceptive gay story, Weekend, and was responsible for the television series, Looking, has a fine sense of the lives of ordinary people, men and women, in ordinary British cities like Norwich. More of the attention goes to Kate, the audience looking at Geoff and situations through her eyes. Normally, the week would have been very ordinary. Kate walks her dog in the morning, greets her neighbours, goes to the hall where this celebration will be held to check out that all, including the songs, is ready, has conversations with her friend Lila (Geraldine James), urges Geoff to go to a dinner for workers at the factory where he spent such a long time. But, at the beginning of the film, something happens which surprises both Kate and Geoff and the film moves into something of a modest secrets and lies story.
Geoff receives news that the body has been found of a young woman who fell into a crevasse in the Swiss Alps, Geoff with her at the time. Her body had been preserved in the ice all this time and Geoff is asked to come to identify her body as next of kin. What follows is Kate’s surprise to learn something of the rather more intense relationship than she had thought between Geoff and the young woman, as well as Geoff wondering whether he should go to Switzerland.
The couple work through these revelations, especially after Kate rummages in the attic and finds photos from that time, surprising her even more. It is not as if there were a great mystery. Rather, it is Kate ruminating on the 45 years of marriage given these previous events and her not knowing the detail during the years.
In some ways, this is Mike Leigh territory, but Andrew Haigh has made a much more gentle film, exploring the characters and their interactions, of two people who might well live up the street.
Mexico, 2015, 85 minutes, Colour.
Tim Roth, Krystian Ferrer, Noe Hernandez, Harrison Thomas.
Directed by Gabriel Ripstein.
600 miles is a rather small film, directed by Gabriel Ripstein, some of the celebrated Mexican director, Arturo Ripstein, set on the border of Mexico and the United States. The film was supported by Tim Roth who appears as an investigator living in Tucson.
The 600 miles of the title is from Tucson down into Mexico, a trip made by a young man and the investigator. It is something of a violent story although the treatment is rather restrained.
Guns and illegal smuggling of arms is key to the film. During the opening sequences, the young American goes from shop to shop, trying to buy guns and other weapons, served by very willing experts in their shops. He has a young Mexican friend and, together, they are building up a cache of arms to smuggle across the border.
All would have been simple, and probably was on many of their trips, until the local investigator is on to them. They overwhelm him, and the young Mexican man drives him down to his uncle who is the arms dealer.
The central drama of the plot is not the issue of the arms smuggling though that is significant, but it is the story of the interaction between the young man, more and more nervous, emotional, despite his manifestations of toughness, put to the test by his uncle, who is the dealer, who wants him to shoot the investigator. With some turning of tables, it means that the investigator gets the upper hand, has to decide how to deal with the young man, who is prone to fear and tears, and to return home.
This gives some suspense to the latter part of the film, the audience having some sympathy for the boy despite his being involved and his attempts at bravado (though there are some scenes with him studying himself in the mirror, some references to him as fag, and the suggestions that part of his gentleness may be due to a homosexual orientation).
Not a great film, but an indication that this young director might have a solid career before him.
Romania, 2015, 108 minutes, Black and white.
Teodor Corban, Mihal Comanolu, Cuzin Toma.
Directed by Radu Jude.
This is a harsh film, depicting some of Romania’s history, in 1835, in a remote area, under the power of the Ottoman Empire, but also ruled by the local authorities, the boyars, trying to maintain order in a rough society and be loyal to the Turks.
The framework of the film is a journey by a local constable and his son, his apprentice, searching for a runaway gypsy who has stolen money from the boyar. In fact, the man is innocent, and has been accused because he has had a sexual relationship with the boyar’s wife.
With graphic black and white photography, the film shows the journey of the two men, the different communities that they encounter, including an Orthodox monastery where gypsies have been employed to work, a river where gypsies pan for gold, encountering a travelling monk and fixing the wheel of his cart while he gives an extraordinary and belligerent summation of prejudices in Romanian society, especially against the Jews, with strange interpretation of Jewish giants, but following through with a criticism of the major countries of Europe. Father and son have many conversations illuminating how society was at the time.
They pay a bribe to a neighbouring authority who gives information about where the gypsy could be found and they follow through to the village. However, they are somewhat sympathetic to the gypsy when they eventually find him. They stay the night in the village for a rather raucous time of drinking and sexual activity.
By the end of their journey, they are back home, presenting their captive to the boyar, the wife being made to confess, a fierce and shocking punishment for the gypsy, and life returning to normal.
This is a striking reminder of how human nature is prone to barbarity along with its gentle qualities.
AS WE WERE DREAMING
Germany, 2015, 117 minutes, Colour.
Merlin Rose, Julius Nitschkoff, Joel Basman, Frederic Haselon, Marcel Heuperman.
Directed by Andreas Dresen.
Director Andreas Dresen some years ago made a film about elderly people and their relationships, Cloud 9. This time he has focused on children at school and young teenagers. And he presents a fairly grim picture.
The film is based on a well-known novel which takes placed in East Germany, the GDR, during the 1980s, the buildup to the Berlin Wall coming down and what life was like in East Germany at this time, the indoctrination that the children received at school, the expected loyalties to the government and to the state, the role of the teachers and their influence on the students, but the squalor of the aftermath as the students found a certain amount of freedom, gangs were formed in the cities and towns, the response to the music, the kind of hard rock mentality, the availability of drugs, the rebellion against adults are all dramatised in a way that will have a resonance on those who lived through this experience but could be quite alienating to an audience just looking in.
In fact, this presentation of young people, seeing them as good little children at school with high hopes, and then seeing how they turned out within 10 years, many of their lives in ruins, some dead from drug overdoses, others operating as dealers, some trained in boxing but falling foul of organisations and indulging in violence, one of the girls becoming a stripper.
Much of the action is seen from the point of view of the central character, Danny, who finds his friend Mark in squalid circumstances and drugs trauma. There are flashbacks, not only to childhood days, but also to the events and interactions which led to this situation.
Probably important as a record of difficulties in this particular time, the time when people were dreaming of what might be, but this is something of the harsh reality.
BIG FATHER, SMALL FATHER, AND OTHER STORIES/ CHA VA, CON VA
Vietnam, 2015, 100 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Phang Dang Di
A film from which takes on quite a lot of stories, as indicated by the title. Most of them are connected, but there are some which seem to be introduced at random.
The most impressive aspect of the film is its picture of life along the river, the various huts, the boats, the people and their different ways of life, some working, some unemployed, some students, especially the central character who wants to be a photographer. The film also presents some of the sleazy aspects of life, especially the clubs, the women and their seductive dancing, the group dancing men, along the lines of Broadway musical. There are also gangs, fights, and some of the characters taking refuge in the countryside. There are also issues of homosexual orientation.
The picture of Vietnam is quite effective – but there are many more films which bring the country to life more strongly and interestingly.
Poland, 2015, 90 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska.
Body is an unusual mixture of the serious and comic. It has been directed by Malgazorta Szumowski whose films included the story about prostitutes, Elles, and a film about a priest with a homosexual orientation, In the Name of…
At the beginning of this film, a police inspector goes to find a body hanging by the banks of the river in Warsaw. As they continue their investigations, the police see the corpse come alive and walk away. This introduces the theme of the body, life and death, health… And the possibility of ghosts or the dead walking amongst us in a kind of purgatorial experience.
Part of the film concentrates on the policeman, his work, the death of his wife and his seeming lack of grief, from the perspective of his daughter, a big fat and drinking man, smoking, earning his daughter’s dislike, even hatred. The daughter goes to a rehabilitation centre which is run by a widow, a very strict and prim woman, who enjoys her work with the women, role play, eliciting deep screams… And then going home, had strict and regular routines, her affection for an enormous dog.
She crosses paths with the police inspector when he goes to visit the doctor for discussions about his daughter’s situation. We have seen the daughter at home, exasperated with her father, taking an overdose. We have also seen the daughter at a session, role-playing about the relationship of herself with her father, expressing her angers, vocally and physically.
The woman from the institution also has psychic sense, conduct seances putting grateful customers in contact with the dead. Finally, the father and daughter agree to hold a seance in the hope of contacting her mother. Nothing happens – and, Spiritualists would not be particularly pleased, the film ends with father and daughter bonding together in laughing at the failed experience.
CHASUKE’S JOURNEY/TEN NO CHASUKE
Japan, 2015, 106 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Sabu.
This is a Japanese fantasy, a story about writers in heaven, devising scenarios for people on earth, under the overall supervision of the The Man, a God-equivalent.
The opening scenes are in heaven where the hero, Chasuke, serves tea to the writers. He comments on some of the screenplays and is concerned about a young woman who is killed, and is then sent down to save her. He encounters several people who are central characters in the stories by other writers. They help him to save the young woman – although, it emerges that Chasuke was a member of the Yakuza and is being pursued by gangsters. Needless to say, there is happy ending, along the lines of women Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire – happiness on earth seems to be better than happiness in heaven.
The film was written and directed by novelist, Sabu.
UK, 2015, 105 minutes, Colour.
Cate Blanchett, Lily James, Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgaard, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell, Rob Bryden.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
This version of Cinderella is one of great charm, a pleasure to watch, entertaining and often funny, with some witty and wry lines – a film for girls of every age, young girls and old girls, but not one for boys of any age!
The screenplay was written by Chris Weitz, writer and director of several very entertaining films, including About a Boy, and directed by that fine actor, Kenneth Branagh. And the cast is top-class, Lily James a lovely as Cinderella, Richard Madden making an impression as the Prince. But it is some of the adults who are entertaining, principally Cate Blanchett as a smilingly cruel stepmother (often wearing green, indicating her envy and jealousy), uttering quite ironic and cutting lines. She spends a lot of time promoting her daughters simply because they are her daughters, whom she thinks are rather stupid (and not incorrectly). Derek Jacobi is the King, Stellan Skarsgaard is the scheming Grand Duke, Ben Chaplin Cinderella’s sympathetic father, with a brief comic turn from Rob Bryden as the artist commissioned to paint the Prince.
The thing is, of course, that we all know what is going to happen. The pleasure is in anticipation and then the satisfaction of seeing how what we were expecting turns out.
There is something of a more serious opening to the film, Cinderella as a young baby, the loving parents, her mother’s death, the father and his travels, and the charming Cinderella making no objections at all to her father’s wanting to marry again. It is clear that she has not yet met her prospective stepmother!
All goes according to the stepmother’s plan when she moves in, installing the daughters, relegating Cinderella to the attic, not allowing her to eat with the family, Cinderella not allowed to do anything much in fact. But, Cinderella has great comfort in her four pet mice, the most engaging little animals on screen since that chorus in Babe 20 years ago. Their comic presence and some of their antics are very entertaining – especially in comparison with the stepmother’s big ugly cat.
Cinderella is certainly an energetic young woman who does ride off in frustration into the forest, encountering the Prince going hunting, pleads for the life of the stag that the hunters are chasing, and thinks the Prince is an apprentice. In the meantime, the Prince has fallen in love, telling his dying father and irritating the Grand Duke who wants the Prince to marry into foreign royalty. So, the ball is proclaimed, stepmother and daughters get their dresses ready, Cinderella being reduced to having to put on her mother’s stress and having stepmother berate her, mock her and tear the dress.
It is time for the fairy godmother to arrive – although it is she who has been doing the amusing voiceover. She appears as an old beggar at the mansion door to whom Cinderella is kind and, lo and behold, a transformed begowned blonde beauty, Helena Bonham Carter. She is very funny as she goes choosing the pumpkin, transforming the lizards into footman, the goose into the coach driver, and the four mice into the horses.
The ball is as lavish as might be expected as is Cinderella’s blue gown, her skill in dancing, talking with the Prince – but it is soon midnight and the spell is lost (except, of course, for the glass slippers which do not disappear).
Some comedy as everybody tries to get the slippers to fit, the cruel stepmother preventing Cinderella from trying – but, and it’s thanks to the mice and their thoughtfulness, that she gets her opportunity and, then, happy ever after. And the final credits conclude with the song from Disney’s 1950 film, Bibbity, Bobbity Boo. What more could one ask for?
EL CLUB/THE CLUB
Chilli, 2015, 95 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Pablo Larrain.
The Club seems something of a flippant name for the drama that unfolds.
This particular club is a house in an isolated town on the Chilean coast. Four men live there as well as a woman. However, the four men are all priests who have been removed from public ministry. One has dementia and has no knowledge of what he has done to merit his removal. Another is a priest who was a chaplain to the military, listening to the confessions of the personnel for seventeen years, noting everything in a book, which led to disapproval from the military, confiscation of the book (although he says he has everything in his memory), and the church sending him to this house. Another priest is guilty of selling unwanted babies on the black market to the wealthy, saying that you have the poor with your always and this was something of a service. The fourth priest is a paedophile, homosexual in orientation, who finds ways of justifying and even sanctifying his behaviour.
When another priest arrives and is suspicious, the four priests are not welcoming. But, outside the house, one of this priest’s victims is shouting, describing his sexual experiences in great and specific detail, the priest denying it but then shooting himself.
The upshot is that a Jesuit visitor, a psychologist with mission experience in Africa, is sent by officials to examine the priests, and to close down the house, even if it means sending the priests to the police and jail. He questions all the priests which gives the audience an opportunity to look at the priests, listen to them, try to understand their attitude towards the behaviour, justifying it, and living with it while accepting the punishment from the church.
Also in the house is a woman who has been a nun and has decided to stay in the house as housekeeper, caring for the priests, even defending them, not liking the visitor with the impression that he belongs to a new church.
The film shows the life of the priests in some detail, especially their particular interest in training a greyhound and racing it. But, with a kind of vengeance, greyhounds in the town are killed by the priests and the sister kills their own pet greyhound – leading to a lynch-mob against the victim of the sexual abuse.
The visiting priest is shocked at this behaviour takes pity on the wounded victim, talking with him, and bringing him into the house, holding it over the priests and the sister that they have two take him in and care for him. He will not report them.
While there have been many films about priests, and especially about paedophile priests, this one is challenging with the broader range of offences. In terms of paedophilia, the priest rationalises his behaviour, talks about love, that formerly homosexuality was frowned and is now pronounced on as God’s gift, and the effect of his interaction with the boy whom he abused.
This is of particular interest in the situations of the churches of Latin America and of Chile, Catholic countries facing up to the realities of abuse. While some think of this kind of film as an attack on the church, it is an attack on aspects of the church, on individuals and church authorities.
The film was directed by per below the rain, internationally known for his Tony Chapman the arrow and his political film, No.(his wife portrays the sister in the house.)
Czech Republic, 2014, 75 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Veronika Listova.
Daniel’s World is significant documentary on a very difficult subject, especially in the 21st century, paedophilia having been something of a closed area in the 20th century, but changing, especially when sexual abuse cases emerged.
This film was made for Czech television but it is of interest worldwide. The subject is Daniel, who understands himself as a paedophile but does not wish to abuse children. He appears in several discussions with sexologists and psychologists, explaining his situation, his history, and his understanding himself, acknowledging the restricted aspects of a future life. He is 25 the time of the making, studying literature, has published a children’s book about a mermaid.
He discovered his orientation while young, and further realised that he had an attraction to pre-pubescent boys, thus fulfilling the clinical definition of a paedophile. But, as the opening indicates, the paedophile condition does not mean acting out, especially in harming the children. Daniel does discover a young boy that he is attracted to, falls in love with, permits himself to visit the boy once a month, allowing some hugs, but only in the presence of the boy’s parents. His happiest hours are spent in being with the boy. He has not confided his psychological state to the parents.
The film is important for audiences to look at and listen to. It is clear from Daniel that he is not in favour of child pornography or any legislation in favour of it, or lowering the age of consent. Rather, he is concerned about the psychological state of the child and the child not being involved in experiences beyond comprehension.
Daniel also explains how he went on to the Internet, had discussions online with men with similar problems, received advice and, with a protest march in Prague, he checks with some gay men and is permitted to join the march, with his own banner, “coming out” as a non-threatening paedophile. He is joined by some friends for support.
This is an opportunity for an audience to try to understand the psychological make-up of the condition in which paedophile was born. This raises questions of therapy, change and the possibility of change – or not. It also helps the audience realise that a paedophile will not be able to express the affection felt, and will not have a life partner. Sexual urges will remain in the imagination and fantasy and in masturbation.
Statistics are given about the number of paedophiles, from 5 to 0.1%. And information is also given about the numbers of paedophiles who contemplate suicide.
With so many cases of sexual abuse, within the family, with stepfathers, with those working in institutions of care, with clergy, this profile of the paedophile may be able to throw light on the condition of so many of the offenders.
EISENSTEIN IN GUANAJUATO
Netherlands, 2015, 105 minutes, Colour.
Elmer Baeck, Luis Alberti.
Directed by Peter Greenaway.
Peter Greenaway’s films are an acquired taste. With expertise in Fine Arts, and after many short films, he began making features in the 1980s, beginning with an exercise in design and architecture, The Draughtsman’s Contract. He continued his artistic vein, but with narrative, during that decade.
However, his films of the 1990s were less accessible to the general audience, more esoteric in theme, and more packed with visual design, even crowded pictures around the framework of the image. This was the era of Prospero’s Books, The Baby of Macon, The Pillow Book. He then retired to make more experimental films although he did do a study of Rembrandt and now this rather more straightforward film on Russian director, Sergei Eisenstein.
Eisenstein had become celebrated in Russia, especially with his films October and The Battleship Potemkin. He received invitations from Hollywood to visit and did so, making friends with Charlie Chaplin, and there are a allusions to this visit in this film. However, he moved on to Mexico with the intention of making a film, a documentary. He did film an enormous amount of footage for Que Viva Mexico.
While this film does focus on his ability as director, this is a more personal portrait of a Russian absorbing some of the culture of Central America. He comes across as a rather boisterous personality, partly uninhibited in manner, but inhibited in his own sexual orientation which is put to the test, especially through his Mexican guide, an ethnological professor, married with a family, who seduces Eisenstein. Eisenstein is shocked by the experience but also begins to feel liberated. It can be noted that the seduction sequence is fairly explicit.
Greenaway does not use a lot of his expected techniques. This is a much more restrained film, using the split screen to great advantage, sometimes putting actual photos of celebrities on the margins of the screen to highlight the realistic background of this narrative.
Eisenstein is played by a finish actor, Elmer Baeck, who gives a performance that is a blend of the uninhibited extrovert and the quieter introvert who is on a voyage of discovery, of himself, of his film career, of a different country and culture from what he was used to.
There are some verbal interventions by Stalin and Eisenstein had to return to the Soviet Union and to the furthering of his career, although, by his visit, he seems to have lost some of the esteem that he experienced in Russia.
Whether the film is accurate or not, it is so well made, capturing audience interest, that we feel that we have got to know Sergei Eisenstein.
Germany, 2015, 110 minutes, Colour.
Christian Friedel, Katharina Schuttler, Johan Von Bulow, Burghardt Klaussner.
Directed by Oliver Hirschbirgel.
Oliver Hirschbirgel’s, Downfall, showing the last days of Hitler, was a great international success though causing some controversy in Germany with its picture of Hitler, indicating some more humane aspects of his behaviour. Hirschbirgel had already made quite an impression with his feature debut, The Experiment.
After several years making films abroad, The Invasion and the portrait of Princess Diana, Diana, both of which were received, he returned to Germany to make this film about the era of National Socialism.
The subject is Georg Elser, a man in his 30s, seemingly quiet, interested in folk music, a touch of the womaniser and his work in the town in the Jura Mountains. The film opens with his setting up a bomb in a hall in Munich, timed to assassinate Hitler as he made an address. It is 1938.
However, the attempt to kill Hitler was a failure, with Hitler leaving the room 13 minutes earlier than anticipated. Elser is caught, interrogated with torture, threatened by bringing his lover into the interrogation, but his never giving up any information. Hitler thought that it was a conspiracy and would not believe that it was the work of one man – with Else spending some time explaining the bomb and his skills to the interrogators.
The film offers flashbacks to his character, his mother, life in the town, his music, the clashes with National Socialists, the birth of the child and its death. Elser was condemned to Dachau and was executed just before the liberation of the camp.
Christian Friedel gives a convincing performance and the film makes the point that while attention is given to Von Stauffenberg and his attempt to kill Hitler, and people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer are held in high regard, with films made about Sophie Scholl and others who resisted, Elser was often considered something of an eccentric loner. This film rehabilitates his memory.
EVERY THING WILL BE FINE
US/Germany, 2015, 119 minutes, Colour.
James Franco, Rachel McAdams?, Charlotte Gainsbourg,
Directed by Wim Wenders.
Director, Wim Wenders, would not have imagined 40 years ago that his entry to the Berlin Film Festival of 2015 would be an American film, set in Canada, rather conventional in its style, with a great deal of feeling, even sentiment - which did not exactly endear him to the Festival audience or to Germans.
This is the story of a novelist, played with quite some feeling by James Franco, different from many of the roles he usually takes on. He is in an unhappy situation, relations-wise, with Rachel McAdams?. He has taken some time off, spending it in the ice and snow with a group of workers, getting material for a novel.
The key event occurs almost immediately, a little boy sliding out from the snow into the path of his car. He is shocked, takes the boy, gives him to his mother, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who makes a frightening discovery. This affects the novelist, but he is exonerated from any blame by the police for the accident and the mother is extraordinarily forgiving, although she blames herself for being absorbed in a novel (Faulkener’s As I A Dying, which Franco had directed in its film version!) and not noticing the evening coming on and the children at play.
The screenplay has three time jumps, a two-year period, to four-year periods.
This means that we can follow the life of the novelist, the effect of the accident, his contacting the mother, offering to do anything that he could, comforting the mother who goes through a ritual of burning the novel to purge something of her guilt.
During these time gaps, the author begins a new relationship with a woman who has a daughter, rather outgoing and precocious, who likes the novelist and would not be unhappy to have him as her stepfather. Another key event happens, rather more low key, when the group go to a fair, enjoy the rides, but witness the collapse of one of the carriages and the novelist lifting the carriage so that the injured person can be retrieved. His partner is quite moved and, then, upset that the novelist is so phlegmatic in his response, even to reading a book calmly – and she refers angrily to the effect of the previous accident on him.
In the last period, the boy of the accident has now grown into a teenager, puzzled about the novelist and his role in the accident, writing him a letter wanting to meet him. He has not told his mother, but she discovers the letter and urges the novelist to meet with her son. Which he does. In the meantime, he has married, the stepdaughter is growing up, and there seems to be some happiness in this family life. At one stage, he encounters his previous lover and is surprised by her unexpected reaction to him
There is something of a bizarre incident towards the end of the film which disturbs the wife, but it is something which helps bond him to the young man and his hopes for the future, even to being a writer.
The film was made in 3D, effective in its way, but seemingly unnecessary for this kind of film. It is an American film of sentiment, probably pleasing for most audiences, but still rankling with those who have put Wenders on a pedestal and cannot forgiving forgive him for making such a conventional entertainment.
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
US, 2015, 119 minutes, Colour.
Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dorman, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Hayward, Marcia Gay Harden.
Directed by Sam Taylor- Johnson.
Notoriety and big box-office.
By 2005, readers the world over were indulging in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, millions of them. And then came the movie version with everybody going to see it. 10 years later, everybody seems to be reading or have read 50 Shades of Grey (but not this reviewer). More than a ready market for the movie version. And here it is.
Different groups have had some negative reactions. Those concerned about sexual morality question the behaviour of the characters, especially with the issues of dominance and submissiveness in sexual interactions. Many concerned about sexual violence, especially towards women, consider that this is a story about a male exploiting a woman for his own gratification – and, to a large extent, it is.
But, in many ways, it is not a film to get to het up about. It is not as if we have not seen this kind of behaviour on screen before – there was Nine and ½ Weeks almost 30 years ago, quite explicit and contentious for its time. Themes of bondage and dominance have been present in many films, perhaps not so much in American films but, certainly, in those from continental Europe.
The film is a variation on adult men and women, sexual attraction and behaviour, dominance and freedom.
Christian Grey (Jamie Dorman) does not seem exactly like your ordinary citizen. Not only is he good-looking, he is a billionaire, controlling a company, shown to be effective in business, from a respectable family, and dreamworld character rather than a character who seems real. Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) does seem a little more real. She has a loving father who turns up to her graduation. She has a loving mother, although she is on her fourth husband and cannot make it to the graduation, but keeps contact by phone and a visit from Anastasia. Anastasia is studying literature at the University, has a roommate who gossips, and has been holding herself back in terms of relationships. Awkwardly stepping in to do an interview for her roommate with Christian, she is smitten, infatuated, flattered by his attentions (which include helicopter rides, new clothes, an expensive car, a trip in a glider…). And falls in love.
Christian, in Jung’s psychological terms, is the epitome of the introverted decisive type who is focused completely on the detail of the present and seems in no way subjective in his approach to decision making – and his conversations with Anastasia are straightforward, even blunt, certainly not good at humour or jokes. And, of all things, he hands Anastasia a multi-page contract about the relationship, his dominance, her submission, the rules and possible punishment (but she does reject some clauses). Some of these scenes are serious, seriously ludicrous.
There is a revelation that as a 15-year-old boy, Christian was seduced by a friend of his mother and involved in this kind of dominant-submissive sexual relationship, He the submissive, finding it liberating, so he says.
Many of the scenes in the film are quite ordinary, Anastasia and her work, her graduation, her visit to her mother, a meal with Christian’s parents… However, whether out of interest from reading the book or whether from touches of prurient curiosity, it is the sex scenes (rather restrained in comparison with many other films) that draw in the audiences.
It might be difficult to let go of 50 Shades of Grey because there are another two novels in the trilogy.
GONE WITH THE BULLETS
China/ Hong Kong, 2015, 120 minutes, Colour.
Jiang Wen, Ge You, Zhou Yun, Shu Qui.
Directed by Jiang Wen.
This film is quite an experience, although many audiences at the Berlin Film Festival Press Show, left halfway through. While it is on the screen, it is difficult enough to follow – but, if one reads the synopsis, the characters and events all fall into place.
The film has some historical background, the transition from the Empire to the Republic and the consequences for individuals, for the Empress and her advisers, for the warlords who now abounded and were creating nations for themselves, their own structures and government, as well as finance and corruption.
There is a competition in the film for courtesans from around the world – which is based on actual events.
The stories told from the point of view of a conman who claims that he was an adviser to the Empress, but was drunk when the transition took place and so lost his position, concentrating on frauds. In an opening scenes reminiscent of The Godfather , he listens to a young man who is upset that his warlord family has “new money” while he wants the respectability of “old money”. The conman and his friend – who was later to become an antagonistic police chief – decide to launder the money with the huge spectacle of the courtesan competition.
This film acknowledges film genres, not only The Godfather, but American musicals, especially those designed choreographies of Busby Berkely. And there is considerable tribute to opera, Puccini and Verdi, La Boheme and La Traviata. And Grieg features in the soundtrack.
There are quite some complications with the conman, his attraction to a woman who is found dead in next to him after a drug night, his imprisonment, the making of a black-and-white film (this is also based on fact) in which he stars, recounting the events of his life. A young socialite woman, with the disapproval of her parents, is in love with a conman and this leads to some final decisions and heroism.
The film was directed by Jiang Wen. His films are diverse, The Sun Also Rises as well the comedy and action of Let the Bullets Fly. He further enjoys himself by playing the central role in all its comic and serious complexity.
L’ HISTOIRE DE JUDAS
France, 2015, 99 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Rabah Ameur- Zaimeche.
This is an impressive biblical film, all the more interesting because it was written and directed by a French Algerian director, influenced by Islam. In 2005, the Iranian film, Jesus, Spirit of God, told the Gospel story from the point of view of the Koran, a rather traditional-looking film, with an ending where Jesus goes to heaven and Judas takes his place. The director used the film as a dialogue between Christians and Muslims, touring America and Europe with his film, and, after two years, adding some more scenes, offering a Christian ending.
The Story of Judas received an Ecumenical Award at the Berlin Film Festival, 2015, in the Forum section. The film could be very useful in discussions between Christians and Muslims, with the development of a different perspective on Judas and his relationship to Jesus. He is first seen climbing a high mountain to bring Jesus down after his fast. He and Jesus are clearly good friends, and this continues throughout the film.
The portrait of Jesus is sympathetic, he is perceived to be the Messiah and welcomed by people with whom he relates well. There are a number of gospel episodes, the woman taken in adultery, Jesus being anointed with nard, the condemnation of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, and scenes with Pontius Pilate. There is an equivalent Barabbas, a man with mental difficulties called Carabas.
There is no sense of betrayal by Judas. Rather, he is loyal to Jesus, but makes an enemy of a man who is copying of Jesus words and is critical of Judas, even stabbing him and mortally wounding him, with Judas going into Jesus’ tomb and dying where Jesus had been laid.
The film is beautifully photographed, magnificent landscapes, the use of ordinary people as the cast, offering a different interpretation of Judas.
I AM MICHAEL
US, 2015, 95 minutes, Colour.
James Franco, Zachary Quinto, Charles Carver, Emma Roberts, Daryl Hannah, Leslie Ann Warren.
Directed by Justin Kelly.
The Michael of the title is Michael Glatze on whose experience the story is based.
At the opening, he appears in 2008 as a pastor during a counselling session with a young man with a homosexual orientation, indicating that the man could change, and drawing on biblical teaching for his point of view.
The transition in the screenplay is strong, going back to San Francisco in 1998 where Michael is an openly gay man, a well-known journalist on a gay magazine, and in a partnership which seems to be solid and has a future. Michael is played by James Franco, who has been involved in a number of gay-friendly features and documentaries. Zachary Quinto is his partner. The film has been executive produced by Gus Van Sant.
Michael seemed to have everything going for him, work on the magazine, strong editorial discussions about stances to be taken, many critical of more evangelical religious organisations who use biblical arguments against homosexuality. He is popular as a speaker and a number of gay men express their appreciation of his perspective and advice. When his partner, Ben, gets an invitation to go to Canada for work, Michael hesitates but goes with him. However, in Canada he is unsettled, his outlet being a blog.
But, on the way, he visits his old home town of Olympia, remembers the effect of his mother, encounters a young gay man who prays devoutly at a family funeral, seeming to be able to cope with his sexual orientation and his religious faith. Michael has entered into a new relationship which becomes a threesome with Ben. The have a grant to travel around the United States interviewing young gay people and presenting their findings to audiences for discussion.
Michael, however, has a panic attack, remembering his father’s illness and sudden death. While he is reassured, his mind turns to thoughts of death, God, faith, life after death. To the surprise of everyone, especially Ben and the readers of the blog, Michael starts to talk about faith, changing his sexual orientation, returning to what is “normal”, phrases which hurt Ben and others who read the blog.
In fact, Michael leaves Ben, travels in the United States, decides to go to biblical school to get a degree and to become a pastor. While he is there and plays in a recital, music having been his major study at university, he encounters a young woman, Rebecca (Emma Roberts) who is to be his future wife. While he still wants a certain independence in his life, he does become a pastor with his own church. (The screenplay also takes up the theme seen at the beginning of the film, with the young man not following through the advice that he received from Michael.)
The film ends in 2008 with Michael and Rebecca on the verge of the Ministry in their own church, which seems rather open-ended. However, the actual Michael Glatze saw the film and approved of it, which seems to mean that there has been until now a happy-ever-after ending with Michael pursuing his religious direction, moving away from his sexual orientation).
It is interesting that James Franco supported this film, which seems to offer an open-mind on changes in sexual orientation while maintaining that this is, if not impossible, rather improbable.
IXCANUL/ IXCANUL VOLCANO
Ixanul/ Volcano is a film of interest because of its portrayal of life in Guatemala and indications of a film industry in that country.
The film could be described as ethnographical, situated in a tribal village, under the shadow of a volcano. The volcano itself is consided having some of the divine, a mother taking her daughter to the volcano to pray and prepare her for a happy marriage. But, the indigenous people have been evangelised centuries earlier so that along with the nature religion, there are elements of Catholicism.
The focus of the family film is the mother and daughter in the family, the mother concerned about their livelihood, the daughter’s marriage, her husband having a job, their dependence on a landowner whom they invite to a meal to discuss a possible marriage. In the meantime, the young girl is attracted by a man of the village who intends to migrate to the United States for a comfortable life. She resists his sexual advances at eventually consents. She had hoped that he would take her away but, of course, he does not and leaves her pregnant.
The mother tries to help her daughter to abort the child but then accepts the reality, with the father in fear of losing his job from the landowner who will despise his daughter. She is beaten by a snake and taken to hospital, gives birth, but is told that the child is dead, and the family is given a coffin which is buried. The daughter feels that the child is still alive, digs up the coffin, finds a brick enclosed – the landowner had got his revenge on the girl by selling her baby.
In its 90 minutes, the film takes on a great number of themes. There is a sympathetic picture of the village, indigenous people speaking their own language, many not understanding Spanish, relying on translators who are not always honest (as in the taking of the census as well as the lies of the landowner).
This is an ethnological film taking audiences deeper into Guatemala and its variety of cultures.
JOURNAL D’ UNE FEMME DE CHAMBRE/DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID
France, 2015, 96 minutes, Colour.
Lea Seydoux, Vincent Lindon, Clotilde Mollet.
Directed by Benoit Jacquot.
Octave Mirabeau wrote the book on which this film is based at the turn of the 20th century, capturing the atmosphere of the 19th century in France, the new bourgeoisie, life in the provinces, the class distinctions of the period, the role of servants, the continuing atmosphere of revolution and the sexual mores of the period. The screenplay refers to the Dreyfus case, a reminder that this was the period of anti-Semitism.
The first version of this story was made by French director Jean Renoir in Hollywood with Paulette Goddard as Celestine, the chambermaid. In the 1960s, Luis Buñuel made his version with Jeanne Moreau in the title role. The films used black-and-white. This film is in colour, giving full value to the costumes, sets and decor of the period, aspects of life in Paris, the mansion in the provinces, the local inhabitants and their way of life.
The film is critical of the arrogance of the newly-rich and their use of their class superiority. Clotilde Mollet is very effective in the role of Madame, a bigoted and nasty woman who exploits the chambermaid – although, after all her treasures stolen, she gradually mellows. Her husband, the master of the house, is something of a nitwit as well as a womaniser.
Lea Seudoux, who appeared in the director’s Farewell to the Queen, and who also appeared in a number of films including Blue is the Warmest Colour, is sufficiently self-possessed and rather haughty in her own way as the chambermaid who finds faults with her employees but takes the position in the country house, muttering criticism under her breath, being used by Madame, but making friends with people in the village. Vincent Lindon is Joseph, seemingly devoted to the family for 15 years but who is secretly a revolutionary, stealing the money and possessions from the employers to finance his revolutionary cause, which is, very explicitly, anti-Semitic.
This is the kind of traditional filmmaking where everything is beautifully produced, film versions according to the style of the novels of the 19th and early 20th centuries, something which has an appeal for the public but which irritates film critics who want something more challenging.
KNIGHT OF CUPS
US, 2015, 118 minutes, Colour.
Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Antonio Banderas, Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley, Imogen Poots, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer, Freida Pinto, Jason Clarke, Michael WincottI, Ryan O' Neal. Voices of: John Gielgud, Ben Kingsley.
Directed by Terence Malick.
In recent years, many audiences and, certainly, many movie buffs, have been eagerly anticipating the films of Terence Malick. He made an extraordinary impact in the 1970s with Badlands and Days of Heaven, interest in American narratives, but a greater focus on cinematography, especially the beauty of American landscapes. And then he didn’t make a film until The Thin Red Line in 1998. Since then, he has been a little more prolific with The New World and then, amazing many audiences and critics with The Tree of Life.
There was a huge cosmic focus with The Tree of Life and Malik has always been interested in exploring the more transcendent aspects of human experience. This was important for To the Wonder.
With The Knight of Cups, opinion is rather divided. Once again, the narrative is not as important as the visual imagery, symbolism, interior monologues, the meaning of the society and culture portrayed. Even the actors seem to concur that they were not really in the know about the development of the plot but were given instructions each day on what they might do on the set. For many, this kind of improvisation is impressive. For those with more traditional expectations, even conventional, this kind of filmmaking seems extraordinarily meandering, sometimes puzzling, maybe even inconclusive. But, for those who are impressed by this, The Knight of Cups seems to be another Malik masterpiece.
At the opening, there are quotations from Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, with the voice of John Gielgud, and then a reference to a fable where a father lets his son go to search for meaning but fails. Throughout the film, there is voice-over from Ben Kingsley.
The film is set, of all places, in Los Angeles, in Hollywood, not an expected Malik setting. His character, Rick, played by Christian Bale, is a writer, not one who is struggling (and that is one of the main points) but who has achieved a great deal, is accepted, moves comfortably through Hollywood society, lavish parties, discussions with agents and a range of LA types. And that is what we see and hear him doing. The fact is that, while he has been successful, it has not been enough. He wants more because there seems to be a void in his life, even in the centre of his character.
While he meanders, he experiences a great number of flashbacks, through which he tries to explain himself to himself – as does Malik try to explain him to the audience. One of the principal areas of flashback is to his father, a hard man, who has treated his sons harshly but also seems to want to be forgiven. He is played strongly by Brian Dennehy. His son who is a failure, played by Wes Bentley, has a great number of encounters with Rick, but it is hard to tell what are the outcomes.
At a party, where many celebrities can be glimpsed if you are alert, with celebrities like Ryan O’Neal?, there are discussions with an eager producer, played by Antonio Banderas.
And then there are the women (three Australian actresses being prominent among them). The most interesting and significant is his former wife, played by Cate Blanchett, a doctor with social concerns, seen working with disfigured people, and trying to have straightforward conversations with Rick. Then there is a married woman, pregnant, played by Natalie Portman, a sympathetic woman. Sympathetic can also be used to describe the stripper (Teresa Palmer) whom he encounters in a club but tries to open his eyes beyond himself. This is the case with some of the other women, including Isabel Lucas, and his visit to Japan to a Buddhist Centre. Malik has focused on Christian, even Catholic, themes and this is the case, late in the film, where Rick goes to consult a priest, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl?.
But Rick spends a lot of time on his own, wandering, walking meditatively along the beach (and there are quite a number of water sequences and symbols in the film).
Now whether audiences want to spend all this time with Rick depends on their response to Malik and his filmmaking. Expectation should be that there will not really be any or many solutions, but rather, explorations.
LOVE AND MERCY
US, 2014, 122 minutes, Colour.
John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Bill Camp.
Directed by Bill Pohlad.
Love and Mercy is the title of music by Brian Wilson, one of the original Beach Boys, composing many of their songs, sometimes performing them.
At this stage of his career, Wilson is portrayed by Paul Dano, always an idiosyncratic actor but here relishing the opportunity for performance, a man on the edge, singing but not wanting to tour, composing songs, comfortable in playing with a studio orchestra, encouraging their improvising, but wanting to compose serious music.
The older Wilson is played by John Cusack, an interesting performance, initially appearing quite normal but also with some oddities. We are introduced to him as he tries to buy a luxury car, fascinated by the woman selling the car, his future wife, Melinda, played by Elizabeth Banks. However, it soon emerges that he has had mental illness difficulties, is under the very strict supervision of psychologist Dr Eugene Landry, Paul Giamatti) whose diagnosis is paranoid schizophrenia.
The structure of the film moves from one time period to the other and back again, the experience of the younger Brian Wilson throwing light on his later experiences. Wilson has a sense of responsibility for his brothers, being the oldest. But he also has very strong issues with his father, whose strict attitudes have not encouraged Brian with a good self-image. There are scenes with his father, his father putting him down, especially listening to the composition of one of his songs and, later, selling the copyright to all Brian songs.
The later part of the film has a courtship between Brian and Melinda, their falling in love, but Brian always cautious and the doctor continually intruding, wanting reports of all activities. Ultimately, this is too much and Melinda moves in bringing Brian out of the shadow of the doctor who does not hesitate to enter a vicious and vigorous fight, targeting Melinda.
At the end of the film, there is a resume of what happened to Brian Wilson after this, especially his marriage to Melinda, his acknowledgement of the help of his first wife, and his relationship with all his children. He is also seen as being successful in composing his music, performing it in 2004, and being considered a significant figure in the development of American music.
Argentina, 2050, 103 minutes, Colour.
Ailin Salas, Javier de Pietro, Julian Infantino, Malena Villa.
Directed by the Marco Berger.
The opening of the film shows a young girl carrying a baby and she soon abandons it, but sees a beautiful butterfly. The scene of abandonment is seen twice, suggesting a surrealist approach to the film. This is important because there are two parallel worlds, two parallel stories, with the characters having the same names and being played by the same performers. It is intriguing to see how hair styles and glasses can make quite a difference to the appearance of the same actor or actress.
The plot is rather simple, love between the two central characters, the difficulty being that one couple thinks they are brother and sister and so the love is forbidden – although the audience knows that they are not blood brother and sister because the girl is the abandoned baby of the opening of the film. The other couple and their romance is complicated but with a lighter touch. One of the women has a brother who is gay and makes a liaison with the other man who seems to be initially partnered with the women.
That this means of the film is quite clever – although, some of the characters are not particularly engaging. However, the performances and the contrast between the two worlds retains interest.
UK, 2015, 105 minutes, Colour.
Ian Mc Kellen, Milo Parker, Laura Linney, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Hiroyuki Sanada, Roger Allam, Colin Starkey, Philip Davies, Nicholas Rowe, Frances de la Tour.
Directed by Bill Condon.
This very entertaining film has a lot going for it, a lot of fine ingredients and all fitting together perfectly.
In a press conference, Ian Mc Kellen stated that Sherlock Holmes was the greatest Englishman who never lived. Fans of Sherlock Holmes will appreciate this film, a story of Mr Holmes who gave up his investigations 35 years earlier, regretting that he did not understand the case that he was dealing with, the personalities involved, and the sad ending to the case. He has retired to Sussex, as was mentioned in some of the stories and some of the film versions, to keep bees.
Ian Mc Kellen is a very good choice to portray Holmes. He has the opportunity to play him at age 93, in that retirement in Sussex, keeping the bees, living quietly and unobtrusively, cared for by his stern housekeeper, Mrs Munro (played plainly but subtley by Laura Linney), a war widow, with a young son, Tom (a lively Milo Parker), who sees Holmes as something of a father or grandfather-figure. It is 1947.
We learn, however, that Holmes has made a visit to Japan, searching for a herb, Prickly Ash, that, with Royal Jelly, could be a means of healing for the ailments of old age. And Holmes is not without his ailments. We do see scenes of Holmes in Japan, especially visiting Hiroshima, and some visuals of local people who had been effected by the radiation. His host, who helps him to find the Prickly Ash, also has his own story which Holmes uncovers and, rather uncharacteristically, writes a letter at the end to this Japanese man, a letter of comfort about his father who disappeared long since to work with the British.
And, there are also flashbacks to the story, in 1912, where a man comes to ask Holmes advice about his wife who is deeply disturbed after two miscarriages. Speaking of flashbacks, there are also flashbacks within this story, to illustrate and traumatise it. It also means that we see Holmes at 58, investigating the case, indulging in some of his propensity for disguises, having an emotional discussion with the distraught mother, but quite misreading the situation, something which has haunted him and is now compelling him, at age 93, to write the story. As he writes, at different stages during the film, he has discussions with young Tom who is an alert lad and offers some clues and indications of how the story might be written.
In the scenes in 1947, Mrs Munro feels that Holmes is alienating the affections of her son (and with our 21st century alertness, noticing that Laura Linney plays Mrs Munro as looking at Holmes with a look of a mother who is apprehensive that the man is a paedophile). Rather, Holmes is very supportive of Mrs Munro, teaches Tom a great deal about bees, though there is some melodrama towards the end when Tom is stung.
This is a fine Sherlock Holmes story, a portrayal of his character, and indications of mellowing as he grows older, a touch of the old investigation style, his conversation which is always strong on facts and deductive reasoning, a film that happily shows us the best of Sherlock Holmes.
NOBODY WANTS THE NIGHT
Spain, 2014, 119 minutes, Colour.
Juliette Binoche, Rinko Kikuchi, Gabriel Byrne.
Directed by Isabel Coixet.
Nobody Wants the Night is an odd title for this film, not really indicating what the film is about, even though the darkest night of the Arctic is significant for the plot.
Captain Robert Peary had great ambitions to reach the North Pole, going on many expeditions, sometimes accompanied by his wife, Josephine. This film focuses on Josephine herself, a New York socialite, a woman used to comfort yet happy to go on rugged expeditions, are stubborn and dominant woman, commanding and pressurising all those who worked for the expeditions.
Juliette Binoche plays Josephine. It is a role that requires her to be haughty at the beginning, to participate in the ruggedness of the travelling through the Arctic ice and snow, determined to reach the rendezvous with her husband, no matter what the storms, avalanches, injuries and deaths.
However, when she arrives, her husband is not there. There is a young Inuit woman whom she discovers had a relationship with her husband and is pregnant. She is devastated but has to survive with the young woman, especially as the Arctic darkness comes on. There is not much food to be had, Josephine becoming ill, the young woman being pregnant. It is a transforming experience for Josephine who has to let go of her presuppositions, her sense of power and importance, her sense of superiority over the Inuits, and become much more human.
Rinko Kikuchi, the Japanese actress who appeared in such films as Babel, is the young Inuit woman. There is a guest role for Gabriel Byrne as a philosophising, atheistic, lover of solitude who accompanies the expedition.
There is some interesting information at the end of the film, that Peary’s claim to have reached the North Pole first was disputed, that a doctor claimed the honour, but that afterwards, it seems that both claims were not verified. Josephine Peary returned to New York, wrote a number of books and lived until 1955.
The film was directed by Isabel Coixet, a veteran of a rather wide range of films, My Life without Me, The Secret Life of Words, Map of the Sounds of Tokyo.
THE PEARL BUTTON/ EL BOTON DE NACAR
Chile, 2015, 82 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Patricio Guzman.
A very interesting documentary about Chile, from a well-renowned documentary maker, award-winning, with insights into Chile and its history.
This film, winner of the Ecumenical Award in Berlin, 2015, begins with a cosmic view, symbolised by a block of quartz which contains a drop of water, thousands of years old, with reflection on the cosmos, a reflection on water, on its significance for the world and the Chile. There also scenes of dishes facing into space, gathering information for the 21st century.
However, the director goes back in history, using a device of a group of people unrolling a long carpet-like map of the country, showing how narrow it is, with the Andes and the mountains, and the vast link and extent of the Pacific Coast and its southern islands. Guzman also highlights the original inhabitants, their way of life, the industries, fishing, and how, at the beginning of the 21st century, with British map-makers, there was an intrusion into their way of life and it changed. As with a number of indigenous cultures, the British expeditionaries took individuals to London, dressed them in English clothes, exhibiting them – but, when the individuals returned home, they took off the British clothes and returned to their old way of life.
With the historical information, with the transitions in the 19th and into the 20th century, Guzman finally arrives at the exploitation of the Chilean people, the experience of the dictatorship, the thousands of disappeared, the prisons and conditions, the killing of a number of prisoners by throwing them from planes and helicopters.
Guzman has been long interested in the dictatorship and the Pinochet experience and brings it once again vividly to life in the context of Chilean history and culture.
QUEEN OF THE DESERT
US, 2015, 190 minutes, Colour.
Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis, David Calder, Jenny Agutter.
Directed by Werner Herzog.
For more than 40 years, Werner Herzog has been both provocative and profound in his range of films. He began with some art-house narrative features, including The Enigma of Kasper Hauser as well as a version of Nosferatu in the 1970s. He has also continued to make a number of documentaries, and is well-known for his hard treatment of his cast, especially in the Latin American-set films, Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Fitzcaraldo.
Over the decades, he has been prolific, blending features and documentaries, often going to remote areas to exploit human experience there, including the Antarctic (and, in some moments of irony, he comically voices a film-maker in Antarctica in the animated film, Penguins of Madagascar). In recent years, he has worked from a base in the United States, making such features as Bad Lieutenant, New Orleans, as well as a documentary on the prehistoric drawings in the caves in France, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, filming in 3 D.
Yet, it is something of a surprise to find him making Queen of the Desert. It is very much in the traditional modes of filmmaking, a straightforward narrative, action sequences and romance, with a historical perspective.
Gertrude Bell was an English woman, educated at the University, a pioneer in her times at the beginning of the 20th century. Dissatisfied with life in England, she goes to the British Embassy in Tehran, finds the old Persian culture congenial, begins to learn Farsi, which becomes a preparation for her return to the Middle East and becoming something of an explorer and archaeologist.
However, the screenplay alerts the audience to her role during World War I, her friendship and association with T.E. Lawrence and the repercussions for knowledge of the Bedouin tribes, their alliances, the experience of the war and the reshaping by the conquering allies, creating Middle Eastern countries. Winston Churchill presides at a meeting early in the film to discuss the repercussions for the war and his advisers at the meeting refer him to Gertrude Bell, some very traditional male types sneering at her and what she has achieved.
The film looks very good, the scenes in England very much in the Merchant-Ivory? respectable style. Iran looks more than a touch exotic. But the film and its photography are beautiful and strong in the many desert sequences as Gertrude ventures into the Arabian pensioner, visits Damascus, and shares in aspects of the life of the tribes. Considering that Lawrence of Arabia was made in 1962, it is very surprising that there has not been a film about Gertrude Bell before this.
Herzog is well served by his cast. Nicole Kidman is at her best as Gertrude Bell, very much an English lady at all times, but one with a keen sense of enquiry, and empathy for the Arabs who receive her very well and consider that she is one of the best westerners for understanding them. On the personal level, Gertrude clashes with her newly-rich parents and their desire for a good marriage. In Tehran, she meets one of the staff who is attracted to her, teaches her Farsi, falls in love but has to return to England where her father forbids her to marry, with tragic consequences for the young man. Surprisingly, he is played by James Franco.
In Damascus, a married official (Damian Lewis) falls in love with her. She hesitates, but reciprocate only to find that he volunteers to fight in the war. Audiences might be surprised to find that after her adventures in the desert, Gertrude Bell worked for the British government, based in Cairo, collaborating with T.E. Lawrence and that she continued this work until her death in 1926.
Film buffs might be disappointed that Herzog, at this stage of his life and career, has made such a popular kind of film. Most audiences will find it interesting and entertaining.
US, 2014, 128 minutes,,.Colour.
David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Andre Holland, Common, Tim Roth, Dylan Baker, Martin Sheen, Stephen Root, Wendell Pierce, Cuba Gooding Jr, Alessando Nivola.
Directed by Ava DuVernay?.
It is 50 years ago, this year, that Martin Luther King led the march on Selma. And this film is a worthy commemoration.
Martin Luther King, vilified by many during his life, especially by J.Edgar Hoover and the FBI, and losing his life to an assassin in 1968, at the age of 39. After his death, his wife, Coretta, campaigned for the introduction of a public holiday in his honour, something which was eventually achieved and is still celebrated.
Selma is a film that takes us back to 1964 and 1965. Audience knowledge of the 1963 March on Washington and King’s speech of his dream is presupposed. While the film is a portrait of King, it focuses on his racial equality cause, spread by non-violence, his political contacts, his collaboration with other activists, differences from the approach of Malcolm X, the issue of the Selma March. There is also some focus on his relationship with his wife, his infidelities but his love for Coretta, his care for his children, and Coretta’s standing by her husband, especially at Selma.
King and his associates are central to the film as his Coretta. However, the president of the time was Lyndon B. Johnson who inherited the presidency after the death of JFK but who was elected in a landslide in his own right in 1964. A Texan, he met with King and spoke to him by phone, challenged by an equality issue that King was raising: black Americans had the right to vote but, especially in the South, officials, from Governor George Wallace to petty bureaucrats, did their best to make it impossible for the registration to vote to be accepted. This is dramatised in an early scene when a nurse, played significantly and symbolically by Oprah Winfrey, tries to register and is asked how many districts there are in the state, which she answers correctly, but then fails because she cannot name the officials in each of the 67 districts.
King and a group went to Selma, Alabama, to decide whether it was a suitable place to have a march and a demonstration, the attitudes of the locals (shown to be fairly hostile with Confederate flags, spitting and denunciations) and the risk of protest and violence.
The apprehensions were not misplaced. In the first attempt, the troopers stood their ground and confronted the quiet and peaceful marchers, chasing them and brutally bashing them. King made television appeals to the American public who watched the television news of the events. For the next March, people from all over the United States, black and white, especially with religious leaders of all denominations as well as nuns, coming to help and to join in the March. Crucial to the campaign and public opinion was the murder of a Boston Episcopalian priest by local bashing thugs.
Governor George Wallace, his sheriffs and other officials had no time for black Americans, mouthing denunciations, even urging President Johnson to think about the dire and dread consequences if segregation was lifted…
Ultimately, the march did take place and is a satisfying ending to this film, although the drama comes in the preparations, the thwarting of the original march, the police trooper brutality, and the effect on the American public bracket heightened by our seeing excerpts of news coverage of the time edited into this film.
It is interesting to note that four of the central characters are played by British actors. David Oyelowo is a theatre actor from England, of Nigerian background, who played on the London stage, moved to the United States and appeared in the sheriff in Jack Reacher, the rebellious son in The Butler, the fellow-journalist in Paper Boy. He gives a powerful performance, an impersonation of King, yet getting inside King’s character and communicating his mind, his thoughts, his hopes, and his faith, seen significantly as he knelt on the bridge at Selma when the march was held up. He also captures the voice, the modulations, the power of rhetoric in King’s speeches. The film ends with King’s speech at the capital in Montgomery, Alabama.
British Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta King. Tom Wilkinson is Lyndon Johnson and Tim Roth is Governor Wallace. There is an uncredited appearance by Martin Sheen as the judge who presides over the case as to whether the march should go ahead. The rest of the cast is made up of a number of black character actors like Wendell Pierce, Cuba Gooding Jr, Andre Holland and white actors like Giovanni Ribisi and Alessandro Nivola.
This is a very earnest film, some American audiences finding it too preachy – although, for them, that might be an important point. As it is, this is a tribute to Martin Luther King and his achievement in the middle of the 20th century, a heritage that has lasted, despite frequent flareups, riots and injustices towards African Americans.
Albania/Italy, 2015, 90 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Laura Bispuri.
It is not usual to see a film from Albania. This one opens in the mountains of that country but spends a great deal of its action time in Italy.
The sworn virgin of the title is the second daughter of a strong mountain man who seems to have wanted a son. There are flashbacks to the life of the two little girls together but, it soon emerges, that one of them has migrated to Italy. The younger daughter, Hanah, makes a decision that she would live as a man, Mark, with her father presiding over a ritual ceremony, cutting her plaits, and declaring that she is his son. When he dies, accompanied by a vivid ritual with the fellow men of the village, she decides to migrate to Italy, arriving at her sister’s house, partly welcomed, not liked by her niece, but eventually accepted. She explains that she is Mark and conducts herself as a man. Her brother-in-law finds her an apartment, she makes friends with her niece who is involved in synchronised swimming, and reconciles with her sister. She is also attracted by the man who looks after the pool. At the end of the process, she decides that she would like to live as a woman, returning to the identity of Hanah.
This theme would be interesting in a film from many cultures, but is especially of interest is being treated by Albanian filmmakers.
Iran, 2015, 85 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Jafar Panahi.
Taxi is quite an entertaining story in itself, but it has to be seen in the life of its director, Jafar Panahi, one Iran’s great film directors, claimed with awards. He fell foul of the authorities in Iran a run and was confined to his home, home imprisonment. He was also forbidden to make films for 20 years.
Panahi received very strong support from international film makers. Encouraged, he used a camera to fill himself in his apartment, for the audience to experience his confinement and way of life, finally going down in the elevator but unable to leave the building. With the ban on his film-making, he called this film This is Not a Film.
Several years later, with a certain amount of freedom of movement within the country, he made another film, Closed Curtain, a sometimes rather enigmatic film about a confined man, his friends, and visitors to his house, and the questioning of identities.
With this film, he has a simple concept (used more in the art-house style by director, Abbas Kierostami in 10) of putting the camera at the front of his taxi, Panahi playing the taxi driver, with a range of passengers, selected and briefed, which meant that the camera could look out from the taxi and see vistas of the city of Tehran. The camera could also easily film the passengers in the back seats but could turn on Panahi himself to see his response to his passengers and their conversations.
The choice of passengers is somewhat provocative for the Iranian authorities. Initially, two people get in, the man rather aggressively traditional in his attitudes towards crime and execution while the woman, turns out to be a teacher with rather liberal views about society. Another passenger is a video bootlegger who claims to know Panahi, goes to visit a film student, enabling Panahi to give some advice about film-making, as well as a selection of foreign language DVDs, all bootleg, which the student would find helpful. The point is made that bootlegging is the only way of distribution for Panahi’s own film.
There are two elderly ladies with a fishbowl who want to get to some fish springs before midday, nattering in the back, irritating Panahi, the bowl breaking but his saving the fish with plastic, and letting them get out of the taxi as soon as possible.
There is also a friend who has some conversation about muggings and dire experiences. The last passenger is the director’s niece, picking her up from school, her being able to recite the rules (very restrictive) for making films in Iran and she is interested in a project, seeing young lad near a wedding party who steals money that has fallen on the ground and her trying to persuade him to give it back while she films him for her project.
The final passenger is a lawyer, who has been banned, but is quite forthright in her government criticisms. When they find a purse in the car, they realise it is from the two ladies and they go to track them down. The final image is of police searching Panahi’s taxi to find the memory stick with the film – but they are unable.
In the spirit of solidarity, the Berlin jury awarded the Golden Bear to Taxi.
Taiwan, 2015, 107 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Zui Sheng Meng Si.
This drama is a slice of contemporary Taiwanese life, set in rather sleazy parts of the city of Taipei.
It opens with a young man, sitting with his alcoholic mother, long abandoned by her husband, favouring her older son who has migrated to the United States. She makes bad comparisons with the older brother for her younger son. His name is Rat.
Rat has been a good student but has fallen on bad times, becoming involved in petty crime, linked with some of the gangsters of the city. He also has a propensity for contemplating ants, and later, maggots.
His brother returns the United States, unhappy with the breakup of a partnership, becomes a dancer in a gay club, becomes infatuated with his younger brother’s good friend who, himself, is a gigolo (or, as contemptuously described by the chief gangster who has lent him money, a sperm-seller). The gigolo, despite his work, is in a relationship with a young woman who, as it emerges, is a strong controller, especially when he becomes infatuated with the gay brother. Rat is also concerned about a cousin and goes to rescue her from a situation where a client has been castrated.
The film is episodic, not always providing the links with what is happening on and off screen.
The film becomes rather bloodthirsty at the end. The gay brother and the gigolo do have an evening together, the brother decides to go back to the United States and the gigolo is angrily killed by his girlfriend. But not before he confronts the gangster chief whose thugs have bashed him and he violently kills the gangster. The mother is confronted by both her sons, talks about changing her way of life, but when reaching for a bottle of alcohol on a high shelf, she topples and is killed (Rat later finding her after some days, with many, many maggots).
She does appear momentarily in a hallucination for Rat. He seems to have turned a corner and is finally seen trying to sell vegetables market, though not reliably – and then he also has a kind of vision of the gigolo.
The film may be of interest in Taiwan but is limited in interest and in style of filmmaking for wider audiences. But, it is certainly a grim picture.
THAT SUGAR FILM
Australia, 2014, 97 minutes, Colour.
Damon Gameau, Hugh Jackman, Stephen Fry, Brenton Thwaites, Isabel Lucas, Jessica Marais and many medical experts.
Directed by Damon Gameau.
It might sound like this film will have a sweet taste but it is designed to make audiences concerned about their propensity for sweet tastes and, especially, for consumption of sugar and fructose. This is a documentary, a very entertaining one, that examines the role of sugar in our diet, in our metabolism, and the consequences – with a look at how sugar is so strongly promoted in our commercial culture.
Some years ago, American documentary-maker, Morgan Spurlock, decided that he would film an experiment about diet and takeaway food, especially at McDonald’s? and other such franchises. It was Called Supersize Me. He decided that the focus of the experiment would be his Supersizing every order and eat just this for a month to see what happened to him. Needless to say, he put on weight became unwell, certainly needed some medical checkups and processes for getting back to normal.
Damon Gameau is an actor who has been a number of Australian and television programs, generally the cheeky and cheerful character, quick on the draw with his remarks and cracks. This means that he is very well suited to the role he has set up for himself, not exactly doing a Spurlock, but something very similar with sugar.
He genially introduces himself and his girlfriend who is pregnant. Since he wrote the film as well as directing, it is clear that he has strong views on sugar intake and its results. He does get a panel of experts, blood, the diet, the general health, who are interviewed during the film – and they are introduced with our bit of animation and giving them superhero names. They are wary about his experiment.
The film uses an entertaining device for the expert talking heads, and there are many of them, but he generally has quick bites which bring home the points – but they all appear and are seen within frameworks, machines, which can be moved, turned over… So we are continually alert to what these experts have two offer.
The film uses a number of celebrities to give us background, and sugar information. Hugh Jackman turns up and does some sand drawings to illustrate the origins of sugar in this part of the world, eventually going to India, making its way to Europe where a couple of centuries ago it was looked on as a specialty by the wealthy. Stephen Fry turns up to give us a humorous talk about the different kinds of sugar, the glucose that put energy into our system, the sucrose and its effects and a warning about fructose and its absorption in the liver, turning to fat, increasing at triglycerides… Later, up-and-coming Australian actor, Brenton Thwaites serves as a model to indicate what is happening in our interiors and the damage that too much sugar can do to the liver, to the heart, to the bloodstream.
The information Gameau gets for the experiment is that the sugar intake will be the equivalent of 40 teaspoonfuls of sugar per day. And it is immediately alarming as he begins, that his first breakfast cereal and juice is more than a third of the teaspoonfuls already. As he continues, he finds ways of adding the sugar even to a chicken lunch! Within some days he is put on several kilos and finds his mood is changing, some lethargy…
Over a decade ago he had contact with a group of aboriginal people at Mia Wiru in the Northern Territory, especially in a community whose medical adviser had changed their diet, especially as regards sugar. But, with the advent of the supermarkets and the bombarding advertising, the increased intake of sugar was doing harm.
Next, he went off to the United States and, while obesity had been mentioned, there are quite a few off-putting close-ups of obesity. He is still having the equivalent of 40 teaspoonfuls a day, finding smoothies, drinks, and, alarmingly finding that such a drinks Mountain Dew has more sugar than Coke or Pepsi and more Carfin. In fact, he accompanies a dentist who travels around the state of Kentucky working with locals, including a young man who has been drinking an enormous amount of Mountain Dew since he was a little child and his teeth have either fallen out or rotted. We may not want to look at the close-ups of his mouth, but this is a salutary tale. Gameau also finds a pill that one can put in one’s mouth which will sweeten food with a more savoury taste – he even tries it with a chilli but says it doesn’t work.
In fairness, he decides to interview a scientist who has been working on sugar research for some time. He is not alarmed, and it seems his studies have been financed by Coca-Cola?.
He has been keeping in touch with his girlfriend by Skype and, on his return, as large, he suggests, as she is in her pregnancy, she gives birth and he is delighted with his daughter. With the help of the experts, he gets back to normal size, and gets to editing this film so that we can share his extremely cautionary experience.
Older people probably need to see this film and act on it. Parents certainly need to see the film to check on their children’s diets and the effect, especially of their brain capacities and attention at school.
TORNERANNO I PRATI/GREENERY WILL RETURN
Italy, 2015, 78 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Ermano Olmi.
Ermanno Olmi began directing films in 1958 and has had a very successful career in his native Italy, a focus on Italian life, on Italian traditions, the great values in Italian life and culture.
In the 1970s, he made two films which are considered masterpieces, The Tree of Wooden Clogs and The Legend of the Holy Drinker.
In the years of the 21st century, there were reports that this would be the last film from Olmi, then there was another, and another.
This time this could be his last part he has made a brief film, effective nonetheless. He takes a military outpost on the border between Italy and Austria during World War I. It is winter and the men have dug in, surviving in a trench with accommodation as well as offices for the military authorities. The men dig paths so that rations can be brought in. There are wooden barriers, wire barriers. Flares leaders go up at night.
There is a focus on the men, the responsibility of the officers, the wounded and their hallucinations, the care from the other man. Officials make a decision which the men consider wrong, that a scout needs to go out from the trench to get information about the attack. One man goes out, promised 10 lire for his efforts, but he is shot almost immediately. Another volunteers but strips himself of his rank and then shoots himself.
Then begin the bombardments, exceedingly heavy, and the decision is made that the men retreat. The new young officer makes decisions, the men go down the hill, others remaining to care for the wounded.
The Chaplain is glimpsed, giving blessings to the sick, their burial, for those retreating – and some dialogue criticising the role of the absent God, the wicked God.
Early in the film, a soldier sings, bringing some soothing to the men. Later the young Lieutenant asks the singer to sing again but he refuses, saying that it is not in the regulations and that singing is for happy situations.
The film is reminiscent of such films as Paths of Glory, the picture of warfare, the ordinary men, and the bad decisions of officers. There is a pessimistic ending the soldier commenting that all this activity and heroism will be forgotten.
South Africa, 2015, 90 minutes, Colour.
Busiswe Ngejane, Mhelekazi Mosiea, Pauline Malefane, Zebulon Mmusi.
Directed by Mark Dornford- May.
In 2005, the team behind the making of this film, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for their interpretation of Bizet’s, Carmen, U-Carmen?. The next film was a gospel story, a focus on Jesus, Son of Man, which also incorporated a great deal of song, especially for the star performer, Pauline Malefane, portraying Mary, mother of Jesus.
This time they have done an interpretation of Puccini’s La Boheme, setting it in the township outside Cape Town, where Carmen was set, Khayelitsha. The setting is also contemporary, using a group of university students for the central characters. This works quite well, incorporating the arias and other music from Puccini but also having a chorus, at times, of the main musical theme sung in choral fashion.
The story makes sense in the contemporary setting, poor students, winter, cuts in electricity, the cold – with the information that the area is one of the worst for tuberculosis in the world, certainly a place for Mimi to be ill. She falls in love with her fellow student, as he does with her, very briefly presented during song. There are moments of happiness, Mimi leaving because of her illness, returning with her friend Zoleka (Pauline Malefane) only to die.
The film is vividly made, with an emotional pull, and a celebration of Puccini’s music.
UNDER ELECTRIC CLOUDS
Russia, 2015, 130 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Alexey German Jr.
This is a film designed for Russian audience or audiences who are aware of Russian history, politics, economics, industry as well as the traditions. It has social implications, ethnographic situations and implications, personal stories.
The film also has a singular visual style, is divided into seven chapters with headings, and indications of interconnections between the stories. The setting is 2017, the film released in 2015 at the time of the presidency of Vladimir Putin and the Russian experience, unrest and war, especially in Ukraine, in the context of international sanctions.
The camera work is distinctive, many tracking shots, close-ups, Russian editing and pace. There is also voice-over, explaining the background of the building, the links with particular characters, the building and its being unfinished servings a symbol. There are sequences in chapters with architects, vying about the design, wondering the parking lot, others asking questions about a cupola or a spire. A range of different perspectives.
The film opens with a foreign wanderer, in the cold, difficulties of language, looking for work, and issues of life and death. It is followed by a chapter about the heirs when the owner of the building dies, the son preferring to be with his friends, the daughter wanting to honour her father, getting ideas, inspecting – and the chapter ending with her standing on her hands, upside down on the top of the building.
There is also a story about a real estate agent and his memories, difficult times in 2011, problems.
Whether there is a resolution is a question, visionary, philosophical or whether the whole film has been an exploration, some abstract considerations. To that extent, this is a cleverly made and artistic film for Russians and those familiar with the Russian experience, difficult or even alienating for non-Russians.
Germany, 2015, 140 minutes, Colour.
Laia Costa, Fredrick Lau.
Directed by Sebastian Schipper.
Victoria is the name of a young Spanish woman spending time in Berlin. While she has work, we see her dancing the night away, and linking up with some men at the club. She agrees to study with them but they have a different agenda, one of them, just out of prison, is in debt to one of the prison bosses and has agreed to commit robbery. He persuades his friends to join him, but one is very drunk and they persuade Victoria to be the chauffeur. She moves willingly into the plan, becoming more and more exhilarated, even when she is fearful. The young man that she is attached to tries to be protective of her but his friend in need prevails.
The main feature of the film, which won an award at the 2015 Berlin Festival, is the Cinematography, the design of the screenplay to take place in real time, meaning that the director of photography has to ensure that the film looks as it if it has been one single take. This does give some rise to artificiality in photography and design, placement of the camera, and this also means that there are some deficiencies in the plot (for example, the group leaving their car with the drunk man in the boot, available to the police, and going out to a club only a few minutes walk away).
There is an intensity about the film, in the difficult relationships, the effect on each of those involved, the impact on Victoria herself, her relationship with the young man, their eventually having to escape, going to a hotel, his being wounded, his urging her to go away with the stolen money – and the final answer to her dilemma.
WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?
US, 2015, 100 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Liz Garbus.
Nina Simone was something of an American icon in the music world. The title for this film comes from a question by poet, artist, performer, Maya Angelou. Nina Simone had an extraordinary influence as a singer, as pianist, as an activist in the Civil Rights Movement. But, after 1968, she moved out of the United States, some media entrepreneurs wary of performance because of such anti-white, violence-inciting lyrics and songs and her powerful performance and interactions with audiences.
This film has been produced by her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, who, after a career in the military, has become a singer in her own right. She had a hard life with her mother but at the age of 14 moved to live with her father in New York City. She sometimes bore the brunt of her mother’s violence. It was only later that Nina Simone was diagnosed as bipolar.
The film traces the life and career, highlighting episodes in life with particular songs. Much of the material for the comes from archives and records of Nina Simone’s performances. Many photographs but few talking heads, principally her daughter and a 2006 excerpt from her ex-husband.
There are details of the life, her ambitions to be a concert pianist, moving into singing, many recordings and performances, managed by a husband. She was particularly moved by the death of the little girls burned to death in 1964 and became passionate about the Civil Rights Movement, composing the famous, Mississippi Goddam, singing at the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery, and strongly influenced by Martin Luther King
U 1968, she moved to Africa, especially Liberia, taking her daughter with her. While she did sing at jazz festivals, most of the rest of her life was outside the United States, in Paris, Holland, the south of France, where the depression had been diagnosed and medication help to get better
This is always an interesting film, with good details about the artist’s life, many excerpts of the performances, some comments about her personality and illness, the perspective of the daughter making the film as a tribute to mother, a tale of talent and tragedy.