BERLINALE 2016, SIGNIS REVIEWS
24 WOCHEN/ 24 WEEKS
ALONE IN BERLIN
AVENIR, L’/ THINGS TO COME
BORIS SANS BERENICE/ BORIS WITHOUT BERENICE
CARTAS DA GUERRA/ LETTERS FROM WAR
EJHDEHA VARED MISHAVAD!/ A DRAGON ARRIVES!
EL REY DEL ONCE/ THE TENTH MAN
FUOCOAMMARE/ FIRE AT SEA
MAHANA/ THE PATRIARCH
NEWS FROM PLANET MARS
ONES BELOW, The
QUAND ON A 17 ANS/ BEING 17
QUIET PASSION, A
SHEPHERDS AND BUTCHERS
WAR ON EVERYONE
ZJEDNOCZONE STANY MILOSCI/ UNITED STATES OF LOVE
24 WOCHEN/ 24 WEEKS Competition
Germany, 2016, 104 minutes, Colour.
Julia Jentsch, Bjarne Madel, Joanna Gastdorf, Emilia Pieske.
Directed by Anna Zohra Berrached.
This is one of those films that takes on a very difficult topical issue, that of the termination of pregnancy, a controversial issue which can divide audiences, Pro-life, Pro-choice. But, it is a film that should be recommended to campaigners on both sides. It is one of those films that is able to present a variety of points of view, challenging audiences in their firm beliefs and opening up possibilities of thinking in other directions.
American Archbishop Rembert Weakland once said that he could not write a pastoral letter on this kind of issue for his diocese of Milwaukee unless he had spent a year experiencing with a variety of people the reality of the issues under consideration in 24 Weeks is the kind of film that is essential for this kind of consultation.
It is a German production, featuring talented actress Julia Jentsch (once upon a time the leading role as Sophie Scholl). This time she is Astrid, a stand-up comedian, very popular with audiences, especially women, and at the beginning of the film, obviously pregnant – which she is also able to chat about. She is not married to her partner, Markus, but the film shows they have an extraordinary love and devotion towards each other, sharing everything and, ultimately, differences of opinion about abortion but each standing by the other.
The film takes a tragic turn when the parents are told by the doctors that their child has Downs Syndrome. They make a decision to keep the child and visit centres with Downs Syndrome children and adults, enjoying the visit, sharing the concern with the Downs children, joining in an exuberant dance night. However, the couple’s eight-year-old boy is rather repelled by the idea of having a Downs Syndrome brother.
Family and friends seem to be able to accept the news, Astrid’s mother offering support and being invited to live in, especially to the benefit of their son.
Further visits to the doctors indicate that the baby has two holes in the heart. Explanations are given about the nature of the surgery required and the prospects. This is where the idea of termination becomes quite significant. The father is against abortion, being accused of having some Christian guilt, but not feeling that it was right to kill a child and that he had a responsibility as well as his pregnant wife.
Astrid seriously considers the termination, goes to a hospital, sees a child in an incubator and touches it. She consults the doctors about the nature of termination and the details of the procedure – which are shared with the audience, no holds barred. Astrid also has a discussion with the midwife who assists in the procedures, sympathetic but leaving it to Astrid’s judgement about what is to be done and what would happen concerning the body of the child, the induced birth procedure, the holding of the baby or not…
The film makes a case for not terminating. The film also makes the case about the quality of life of the child if it comes to term and has to experience a great deal of surgery (the parents and the audience by this stage have almost forgotten Downs Syndrome).
The film stresses that this is most significant for the mother, her empathy with her infant in the womb, alive and kicking.
Astrid, at the end, goes on radio to make a statement. But in the noise from the audience as the film moves to the final credits, many will probably miss a key moment, the very last words in the film, whispered by Astrid: “I miss you”.
This film could be an important contribution to discussions about abortion and termination and the repercussions for mother, father, infant.
ALONE IN BERLIN Competition
Germany/UK, 2016, 97 minutes, Colour.
Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson, Daniel Bruehl.
Directed by Vincent Perez.
Alone in Berlin pays tribute to a middle-aged couple and their private (and small) resistance to the Nazi government and to Hitler during the early years of the war. The screenplay is an adaptation of a popular novel about the couple.
The film is quite an international mixture, perhaps disconcerting for German audiences to see strongly German characters as well as police and Nazi officials all speaking in English – but that is the way of the commercial world, so many international directors making their films in English. Perhaps surprisingly, this film was directed by French actor, Vincent Perez, best known for his romantic and, sometimes, swashbuckling roles like Queen Margot and Fanfan La Tulipe.
The film opens with a very young German soldier running through the forest for his life, pursued by the Resistance, shot by them, lying dead in the field gazing towards the sky only for his soldiers to attack and run-off the Resistance.
In Berlin, there is a certain amount of public elation with the prospect of the defeat of France and the hope of the defeating England by the end of the year and Germany becoming the greatest and richest country in Europe. People are joyful in the streets.
A postmistress on her bike, seemingly friendly with authorities, of being seen to be kind towards people in the apartment block, especially to an elderly Jewish lady, delivers the letter to the parents of the young man, who died in giving his life for his country.
It is his parents who are the focus of the story, Anna and Otto, played very seriously and with dignity by Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson. Anna is an ordinary housewife although she belongs to the union of mothers, even having to confront the wife of an official who claimed an exception to war wives working. Otto, or on the other hand, is a foreman in a factory with further demands being made for Hitler himself and for the war effort, Hitler demanding increased quotas. Otto does not belong to the Nazi party and, when challenged, says he gave to the Fuehrer his greatest possession, his son.
But the key thing about Otto and Anna is that Otto decides to write, disguising his handwriting, messages on the back of postcards, telling mothers that their sons would be sacrificed, denouncing Hitler and claiming a free press. Quietly, he places the letters in various strategic points – almost 300 of them with 275 being handed in to the authorities. He hopes he can make some difference in awareness. Anna works with him, helping with some of the deliveries.
In the meantime, Gestapo authorities are not happy with this spate of cards and the police chief, Daniel Bruehl, is commissioned to find the culprit, who is nicknamed Hobgoblin because of his evasive tactics. There is a subplot with one of the police officers coming to Otto’s building to apprehend the old Jewish widow whom local burglars had robbed, but she had given been some help by the couple and by a kindly but outwardly severe judge.
It is the same police who are charged with finding the card-writer. Eventually, the ex-husband of the postmistress is apprehended, tortured, proven to be not the culprit but, under pressure from the Gestapo, the policeman kills him claiming that it was suicide.
Otto and Anna are quite stoic in their continued mission of their card writing and delivery. However, they know it will only be some time before they are apprehended.
The film shows the interrogation of Otto, some brutality, especially the congratulatory-toasting officials smashing their glasses on his head. The results are inevitable, Otto seeming to accept that he would be condemned and executed but had decided that this is what he had to do during the war. Anna shares this.
There is a symbolic ending with the cards fluttering again down from the building onto the streets – and the sad acknowledgement of what he had done by the policeman, somehow admiring Otto, promising to release and but failing to – and experiencing some kind of disillusionment, especially after he was bashed in the face by the Gestapo chief, and remorse.
Switzerland, 2016, 91 minutes, Colour.
Georg Friedrich, Tilde von Overbeck, Karl Friedrich.
Directed by Tobias Nolle.
This is a film from German Switzerland, and the director has stated that people from this part of the country have a sense of isolation in their own country. The central character, Aloys, it is something a symbol of this mentality – although he is played by an Austrian actor (and his father in the film is played by his actual father).
The plot requires a great deal of concentration. Seems straightforward at first,
Aloys is upset at the death of his father, though he later sees him in different circumstances. He is alone, a photographer, with his video footage.
But the main theme of the film is what happens to Aloys in his real life and in his mind, especially concerning a young woman who seems to be a creation of his mind but also exists in real life.
Ultimately, this is a film about loneliness, aloneness, the need for relationship, a film about mental and emotional instability.
L’AVENIR/ THINGS TO COME Competition
France, 2016, 100 minutes, Colour.
Isabelle Huppert, Andre Marcon, Roman Kolinka, Edith Scob.
Directed by Mia Hansen- Love.
Mia Hansen- Love is a French director who has made an impact with the films, Goodbye, First Love and Eden. This time the protagonists of her drama are much older, teachers at college level and graduate students. It is also a star vehicle for Isabelle Huppert, star billing for almost 40 years, who has sustained star billing and continues to be a dominant European actress.
This is also a film whose screenplay will please audiences who take philosophy seriously. Nathalie, Isabelle Huppert, loves philosophy, teaching, reading, discussing, comparing notes with her husband. This gives the opportunity for the naming of several philosophers, student discussions about issues, and many references to classic philosophers in the French tradition like Rousseau, Pascal and Chateaubriand.
The couple have two adult children who are not so interested in philosophy and become supportive of their mother when the 25 years of marriage break, to Nathalie’s shock. However, she seems to calmly have discussions with her husband, with her children. One complication is the constant harassment from her mother who is growing old quite ungracefully, leaning on her daughter. It is of interest that when the mother dies, Nathalie has a discussion with the parish priest who listens attentively so that he can prepare a suitable eulogy for the mother, raises issues of faith, religious practice – and Nathalie herself uses quotations from Pascal about faith and doubt, significant in France’s secular society.
The other aspect of the film is Nathalie’s friendship with a former student whom she promotes, assists in the publication of his essays – although, she has to have sessions with new marketing experts at the publishing house who are influenced by the move away from books to the Internet, away from the plain presentation of text to images and gimmicks to promote works. The student who admires her decides to move into a commune in the Alps and Nathalie pays several visits, especially with her mother’s cat who causes a amount of mischief. It is interesting that the screenplay does not take its audience in the direction of the romance of the older woman with the young man, the student having his own girlfriend.
This is a story with a love for philosophy, reflecting on ageing, memories of the past, happiness and regrets, the courage to continue living despite setbacks and drawing on one’s own resources to keep going.
BORIS SANS BERENICE/ BORIS WITHOUT BERENICE Competition
Canada, 2016, 93 minutes, Colour.
James Hyndman, Simone Elise Girard, Denis Lavant.
Directed by Denis Cote.
A film from French-speaking Canada, a drama about the businessman, his politician-wife who is some physical and mental collapse, and how they will handle this unusual situation.
James independent is a strong presence as pompous, Russian background, the successful businessman, with a large factory, having to deal with his wife situation but not unwilling to take on some sexual consultation on the side. To that extent, the picture of Boris and Berenice’s straightforward.
What makes the difference for this film is the presence of a stranger, played by French actor Dennis and, who appears at different times but who is a key scene where he tells a story from Greek mythology, that of Tantalus, successful in winning favour with the gods who oversteps his mark and experiences and downfall.
To this extent, the story of Boris, with and without Berenice, is clearly Tantalus allegory.
CARTAS DA GUERRA/ LETTERS FROM WAR Competition
Portugal, 2016, 105 minutes, Black and white.
Miguel Nunes, Margarita Vila- Nova.
Directed by Ivo Ferreira.
While this is a war film, specifically the war in Angola in the 1970s, the clash between Portugal and its colony, Angola, there is not a great deal of war action in the film, some mines, some shooting, some interrogations, rebuilding a bridge for a trip to pass over…
And, of course, in the 21st century, there are questions about Portugal’s colonial past, its propaganda that everybody in the colonies should feel themselves Portuguese.
The title indicates something of the tone of the film. There are some moments of being disconcerted at the opening when we eventually realise that the letters by the man from the war are read aloud in voice-over by his wife, while her letters to him a read by him – except for the very last one, his imploring his wife and daughter to come to be close to him in Angola.
The film is very much an art house film, photographed evocatively in black and white, relying a great deal on the spoken word, so many letters revealing the characters and what was going on in the war effort in Angola. Some audiences will be very taken, while others will not be taken at all, by an episode in the middle of the film, running for several minutes, while the husband indulges in a very large series of metaphors, some sublime, some very mundane, to express his love for and appreciation of his wife. (and there is something of a reprisal of this poetic outburst towards the end of the film).
The central character is a young doctor, commissioned for a kind of national service for two years, working as a soldier but also as the doctor on a base, caring for wounds after action, but also caring psychologically for some of the soldiers, one of whom, a friend, is desperate for the doctor to find some illness in him so that he can be sent back. The doctor is not compliant and there is a brief but somewhat overwhelming moment, the soldier naked, taking his gun, hurrying out into the bush and a shot firing.
Morale amongst the man is uneven, the doctor playing chess with the captain, the other men talking about their lives and families, no sight of a chaplain at all. The isolation and all male company leads to some tension, some moments of rape, and, reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, the men’s reaction to two young singer dancers from Portugal for the men’s libidinous energy and release. In the meantime, the doctor continues to profess devotion to his wife.
Time passes, everything is rather repetitious, the audience has no real idea of who the enemy is or why. At one stage a little girl is rescued after her parents’ death and the doctor considers adopting her – only for her grandfather to arrive and take her away.
As the first year passes, slowly, and there is some celebration of Christmas, the doctor is also on the verge of some traumatic stress, but the hope of is, as the moon rises evocatively, that wife and daughter will come to join him and they will be able to have something of a life.
And, to this extent, the film is anti-war and anti-colonial.
CHI-RAQ Out of Competition
US, 2015, 130 minutes, Colour.
Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Samuel L.Jackson, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, David Patrick Kelly, D.B.Sweeney, Dave Chappelle, Steve Harris, Harry Lennix.
Directed by Spike Lee.
For almost 30 years, Spike Lee has been an angry film maker. It has been very evident in so many of his films that he is concerned about race issues, even calling his production company 40 Acres and a Mule, with its reference to the value of African Americans. His 1989 Do The Right Thing has become and remains a classic.
Spike Lee’s career has included documentaries and features. This film combines something of both, a very serious look at the gun culture amongst African- Americans in the city of Chicago, with a slang name Chi- Raq, that is somewhat documentary like. But it is also a fiction film and is based on Aristophanes’ play, Lysistrata, the story where the wives go on marital strike to force their husbands to give up their violence and achieve some peace. Lee takes full advantage of the Greek comic origins of his film and the potential for stylising it.
The central female character in the film is called Lysistrata and she is in a relationship with Chi- Raq, the leader of a gang who also is a musician and performs at a local club. He is played by Nick Cannon and Lysistrata by Teyona Parris. The head of the rival gang, Cyclops, is played by Wesley Snipe. Highlighting the stylised Greek origins is the role of Samuel L. Jackson as a kind of chorus, dressed in loud, almost pimp-like clothes, wandering around Chicago, addressing the audience, moving the action along, making moral observations – with the touch of humour and often with a touch of cynicism.
Some of the popular bloggers on such sites as IMDb seem not to be aware of Lysistrata and bewildered and/or hostile about the stylisation of the film, seeming to assume that it should be realistic film and disappointed, even angry, that it is not.
For audiences who appreciate its Greek dramatic background and the central symbol, the film is somewhat intriguing as it plays out, the African American women banding together, sometimes with song and dance, the response of the men, the possibilities for achieving peace – with Chi- Raq, who is really Demetrius, holding out until he is finally confronted by a wisdom figure, Miss Helen, Angela Bassett, her son having been killed in a random shooting by Demetrius’s father in the same way that he has killed a young girl with the passing bullet, grieved by her mother, Jennifer Hudson.
One of the unexpected features from Spike Lee is that a very serious overview of street violence in the city is given during the initial credits by the real-life Father Michael Pfleger, from the faith community of Santa Sabina, which features as itself in the film. Father Pfleger was a pastor for over 30 years and ran into some difficulties with his bishops. His parish was mainly African- American – but the significant thing is that Father Pfleger is white. Which explains the presence of John Cusack in the film, appearing as the pastor of Santa Sabina, a white accepted by the black community, comforting the grieving mother, giving a fiery and rhetorical sermon, the congregation volubly making their assent, at the funeral, ticking all the pressing issues, and then present at the finale.
In the play, Lysistrata, peace is achieved after the strike of the women. Here there is a gathering, the heads of both gangs, the protesting women, the important presence of Miss Helen. Father Michael serves as a witness. But it is not easy going, Chi- Raq himself unwilling to agree, confronted by Miss Helen about the death of her own son, the role of his father in the death, and his finally kneeling in front of the mother to show his sorrow while giving himself up to serve his sentence.
The same Spike Lee, yet different.
CREEPY/KURIPI Special screening
Japan, 2015, 130 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Kyoshi Kurosawa.
Creepy is an effective Japanese thriller. The central character is certainly creepy in his attitude and behaviour, giving the film, especially as it goes on, an eeire atmosphere.
The central character is a detective, with expertise in the mentality of serial killers who, at the beginning of the film, tries to confront a killer who then takes a hostage and kills her when the detector had pleaded with the man, even giving up his gun. A year later the detective is lecturing at a university, explaining the nature of serial killings to his students.
He becomes interested in an unsolved case and one of his former assistants wants to work with him. In the meantime, he and his loving wife have moved into a new house, want to be hospitable to the neighbours, one of whom is quite eccentric, with a young daughter who goes to school, who becomes somewhat infatuated with the wife – and, through the complexities of the plot, is at the centre of the case that the detective is investigating. It all builds up to quite a melodramatic climax.
So many of the crime dramas from Japan in the 1990s and onwards tended to be ghost stories or with the touch of the supernatural – this is not supernatural, rather a straightforward story.
EJHDEHA VARED MISHAVAD!/ A DRAGON ARRIVES! Competition
Iran, 2016, 107 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Mani Haghighi.
A Dragon Arrives is an intriguing drama from Iran.
The film is set in the present but begins in the mid-1960s, an investigator being interrogated, grilled about what happened to him on an archaeological site. It emerges that several of his associates at the dig are also being interrogated by a representative of a mysterious agency.
The film is set on an island off the coast of Iran, Qesham, a desert island with high mountains. The audience is told of the story about the British adventurer, Baffin, who explored northern America and gave his name to bay and island. He went to Iran to negotiate a trade deal with the Portuguese but the Portuguese were massacred and their boat stranded on land. This is visualised in flashback.
The film moves to the present with the director himself discussing issues with his mother, her finding a box with documents and mementos of the period, and the director’s desire to make a film about the situation as well is to investigate what happened. There are sequences with his team of researchers and writers, doing interviews, especially with the interrogator from the 1960s who is still alive, and a woman involved in theatre design (with a rather long theatrical sequence presented, though its purpose is not clear).
Gradually, the events are uncovered, mystery brought out – that there is an earthquake when the investigators started digging and holes emerge with the quake as well as mysterious sounds and the suspicion of the presence of a strange creature. Another part of the plot involves a father and his daughter, his suppressing her, and her giving birth to a baby which is taken on by the sound engineer of the expedition and who becomes very attached to her, even rescuing her – and the researchers interviewing her later.
The film has its moments of mystery, of excitement, of puzzle.
EL REY DEL ONCE/THE TENTH MAN Panorama
Argentina, 2016, 80 minutes, Colour.
Alan Sabbagh, Julieta Zylberberg.
Directed by Daniel Burman.
Audiences who appreciate Argentinian cinema will be familiar with the name of Daniel Burman. He has made quite a number of films and has received many awards, including Ecumenical Awards.
What makes his films distinctive is that, in a culture which is so Hispanic with traditions of Catholicism, they offer stories of the Jewish community in Buenos Aires (one of the few cities in the world where you can find Kosher Mc Donald’s - which is not open on Sabbath).
His stories are about families, family chronicles, the ups and downs of marriages. It is not quite the same here. Rather, the film opens in New York City where Ariel is engaged to an American dancer, wants her to come to Argentina to meet his father, but has to return without her – although his father is demanding that he bring sneakers with Velcro connections for a patient in hospital. (He can’t find them in many New York stores and so has to try when he gets back home – unsuccessfully).
The structure of the film is seven days of the week, starting Monday, moving through to Sabbath and to the celebration of Purim. It is a kind of cinema diary for Ariel and his activities.
In one way, the activities are fairly straightforward but, on the other hand, all kinds of complications arise. The reason for this is that his father has established a Foundation in the city to cater for the needs of the Jewish population, ranging from supplying food to distributing different kinds of medication to supplying legal advice. And there are always crowds at the Foundation – especially when there is a crisis in the delivery of meat!
Actually, we don’t see the father until the end of the film, he is so busy. He talks with Ariel on the phone and usually is asking an extra favour. For some moments, to help the audience appreciated, Ariel remembers his childhood, cookies and lathering the caramel spread, putting the cookies together, splitting them and choosing the one that had the most spread on it – and then his father, always attentive, nevertheless chooses to give up a school event of Ariel’s to go to become a 10th man, to form a proper Jewish group, at a funeral.
Being available for others is part of the ethos of father and son.
There are quite a number of amusing moments, especially the young man in hospital refusing to have shower or two until he gets a soft towel, demand sporting newspapers and complaining when they are too old and is preparing for an operation – although it is he who gives the audience the explanation of Moses and the need for a 10th man to form a proper group. There is also the gay man who is eager to have a Bar Mitzvah the rabbis are unwilling.
Then there is Eva, working at the Foundation, her father supplying meat, she being considered a sacred person and untouchable – at least up to a point until after some rituals are performed. Ariel and Eva get on particularly well – so what is going to happen to the fiancee who keeps in touch by phone?
And, that’s basically it, a week spent with Ariel, a week spent at the Foundation, a week of imbibing Jewish spirit with different characters, rituals, songs.
FUOCOAMMARE/ FIRE AT SEA Competition
Italy, 2016, 106 minutes, Colour.
Samuele Caruana, Maria Costa.
Directed by Gianfranco Rosi.
This film is billed as a documentary, and so it is, but with its focus on a family, especially young 12-year-old boy, Samuele, who really becomes the centre of the film, it works not just as a documentary but also as a kind of fiction feature. It is directed by Gianfranco Rosi, whose documentary on the road surrounding the city of Rome, Sacro GRA, won the golden lion in Venice in 2013. That was a particularly local film, the customs of the area in different lives of characters on the ring road.
For this film, Rosi the lived for several months on the island of Lampedusa, an island which has become more famous in recent years, not far of the Sicilian coast, not far from the Libyan coast, an island where so many boats, so many rickety boats, crammed with refugees, have landed – unless the boats have sunk with lives lost, a frightening statistic that is given at the beginning of the film.
While the issue of refugees from Africa and, by extension and ultimate explicit mention, from Syria and Middle Eastern countries, there are explicit reference to Islamic State.
But, the film is something of a jigsaw puzzle, the scenes of the refugees punctuating the narrative about life on Lampedusa, especially for the young boy, Samuele Caruana, and his family.
Samuele is an enterprising young 12-year-old, seen chopping branches in order to make a slingshot, aiming at birds, instructing his good friend how to make a slingshot and fire it – and the two of them frequently mimicking shooting with machine guns. We see them at school, testing out the meanings of words in English and Italian. We see Samuele going to the doctor, being tested for his eyes, discovering he has a lazy eye and will have to wear a patch to strengthen it, which he tests out in various slingshots.
His father is a fishermen and Samuele goes out on a boat only to find that he becomes seasick and is advised to go onto the jetty to get used to having a balance and controlling his stomach. He also has a lesson in rowing, which he desperately needs, otherwise he would be trapped between boats. He is a strong screen presence and audiences welcome him, with scenes at home, meals where he incessantly slurps his spaghetti, talking with his father and cared for by his grandmother.
Actually, the grandmother has significance in the film, cooking, cleaning, making the beds – and ringing the rather friendly DJ on the local radio with requests for songs and commemorations to be made.
But, back to the refugees, the pictures of the boats, the picture of the Italian navy and its efforts to find the refugees, sometimes there being unable to give their coordinates with the inevitability of drownings and death. The Italians seem to be doing their efficient best. Exhausted and dehydrated men are lifted off the boats, some of them not surviving. And there are some telling interviews with Africans, especially from Nigeria, making their way to Sudan, through the desert, arriving in Libya, possibly imprisonment there, and the desperation to get on a boat to Europe.
So, this is a strong humanitarian film, destined to win Human Rights awards. There was a rather similar film from Malta in 2015, Simshar, with both films reminding audiences of the contemporary issues of African refugees, death by drowning – but without the answers as to what will become of them.
UK, 2016, 97 minutes, Colour.
Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney, Guy Pearce, Dominic West.
Directed by Michael Grandage.
Genius is very well-crafted, the first film by theatre director, Michael Grandage.
While this story is American and the central characters are American, it is interesting to note that it is a British production, three of the main actors British, two Australian, with only one American actor in the central role.
The period is the late 1920s to the mid 1930s, a significant period in 20th-century American literature, and this is a film about this literature, especially novels.
The title refers to the novelist who, died young, Tom Wolfe. The title could refer at first to Max Perkins, an expert editor at the publishing company, Scribners, friend of many of the novelists of the time, relied on to shape manuscripts aspects into publishable form which enabled writers to receive critical acknowledgement as well as large sales.
The film opens showing grim New York streets in 1929, echoes of the Depression. In the street is a highly excitable young man, who eventually goes into Max Perkins’ office, talking incessantly, scattered concentration, something of an eccentric personality. He is Tom Wolfe who is bringing a large manuscript for Perkins to read, rejected by most publishers but endorsed by the wife of a businessmen who has become his poetry and his lover. Perkins reads the manuscript on the train going home, at home where he lives comfortably with his wife and several daughters, entranced by the manuscript, calling in Wolfe who assumes that he is being rejected again but, in fact, is accepted.
One of the main strengths of this film is the casting, with Colin Firth as his most serious as Max Perkins, Jude Law giving a tour-de-force performance as Wolfe, also the genius of the title. Nicole Kidman is the wife of the businessmen, working as a theatre designer, separated from her husband but living with Wolfe, Aline Bernstein. Mrs Perkins is played by Laura Linney.
A lot of the film shows editor and novelist working intensely, examining every word, exploring every character, cutting a great deal of the text, Perkins caught up in the quiet excitement of the editing, Wolfe always exuberant in collaborating with Perkins and depending on him more and more. The book is published, is a great success and critically acclaimed, Look Homeward, Angel.
A great deal of the film focuses on the two years in which the two collaborated on the next novel, brought originally into the office in bundles of tied pages, boxes, with Perkins reading, a group of typists working on the manuscript, intense work nights, which keeps Perkins from home and his patient wife and daughters, keeping Wolfe from Mrs Bernstein. Perkin’s wife is frustrated but bears up, especially when her husband is unable to go on a holiday with the daughters who dote on him. Mrs Bernstein expresses her frustration, especially when Wolfe is so self-preoccupied that he cannot bring himself to go to the theatre for her premiere. In the meantime, the two women meet and have a discussion about the two men, Perkins always wanting a son and Wolfe seeming to be a surrogates son, and the novelist needing some kind of controlling father-figure.
With the publication of the second novel, Wolfe is again a critical success but has been apprehensive and escapes for a holiday in Paris. Encouraged by reviews and sales, he returns, with Max welcoming him at the boat and Wolfe taking him to see the first apartment where he lived in New York City. But, a tension grows between the two, other publishers interested in tempting Wolfe away from Scribner and Wolfe seriously considering this.
As part of the background, there are several scenes with Perkins and his friend, F.Scott Fitzgerald, played by Guy Pearce. Fitzgerald’s abilities for writing seem to be drying up and he is preoccupied with the mental deterioration of his wife, Zelda. There is a very awkward scene, when Wolfe speaks completely insensitively to Zelda and later to Fitzgerald about his wife.
Ernest Hemingway is also mentioned and there is a small scene where Perkins goes marlin fishing with Hemingway, portrayed by Dominic West, and they discuss Wolfe’s talent.
While audiences may have some knowledge and appreciation of the novelist, who died young and unexpectedly in 1935, the film offers an opportunity to meet Max Perkins, appreciate his talent, which celebrates him in his shaping of works of art but, sometimes, made him wonder whether this was actually destroying what the novelists originally intended.
A film for literature lovers.
US, 2016, 91 minutes, Colour.
Ben Schnetzer, Nick Jonas, Virginia Gardner, James Franco, Danny Flaherty.
Directed by Andrew Neal.
Goat is a very American film, a film about initiation rituals and hazing at US colleges, a picture of some of the fraternities and their codes, the abuse of newcomers to incorporate them into the spirit of the fraternity and so create a lifelong buddy system. Other countries have their own experiences of hazing – especially initiation into the military.
This film shows some of the rituals quite graphically and physically disturbingly with the screenplay particularly critical of this kind of uber-male mentality.
Ben Schnetzer (The Book Thief, Pride) is Brad, a young man about to enter a college, a minor college, yet one with pride, a college where his older brother, Brett, is a respected senior. Brett is played quite effectively by the singer, Nick Jonas. At the opening of the film, we see some of the raucous behaviour of the students, behaviour which involves drugtaking as well as sexual encounters. Brad backs out of this behaviour and is asked by some young strangers to give them a lift, something he is reluctant to do but technically accepts.
The audience identifies with Brad and his uncertainty, having to drive the two young men further and further, out into the country where he stops. He is brutally assaulted and forced to hand over his ATM number. Bewildered by this experience, he goes home, eventually confiding in Brett and going to the police who do not believe him, thinking he was on some kind of drug deal.
This experience has a profound influence on his entry in college, his decision to participate in the hazing rituals, and his determination not to give up and to persevere – with the presumption that by undergoing these experiences he would become something of a man, a stronger man. At heart, he has been a fairly soft young man, something he has in common with the roommate he finds himself with at college.
When the hazing starts, with the young men being referred to as goats, the senior students almost seem like parodies of military Sergeant Majors, barking out orders, profanities, demanding loyalties, and ordering the initiates to humiliate themselves, wallow in dirt and mud, be deceived by bananas substituting for phalluses, drinking themselves sick… And leaving them huddled together overnight. As he watches, Brett is more and more alienated from the rituals, backing off because of studies.
This makes Brad determined to persevere and proud when he and the group have successfully undergone the humiliations. The crisis emerges when the roommate, a physically and psychological fragile person, collapses athletic training. It means that there have to be enquiries by the Dean of studies, the senior students preparing a cover-up, but the authorities getting to know what actually happened. Was Brad talking as the seniors assumed? Was it Brett?
Afterwards, Brad and Brett go to the police, look at a group of men in a lineup, with Brad unable or unwilling to identify anyone – and then his going to visit the place where the assault happened, and the audience seeing him reflect on the experience as well as the consequences of college and the film leaves the audience to contemplate with him what might happen in his future.
The theme gets an extra emphasis by a cameo from James Franco as a veteran member of the fraternity, full of enthusiastic platitudes, singing the fraternity song with gusto, drinking himself unconscious after having praised the fraternity as a group of civilised gentleman. The critique of the fraternities, the hazing and this kind of supremacist male behaviour and attitudes is very clear.
HAIL, CAESAR! Opening film
US, 2016, 106 minutes, Colour.
Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances Mc Dormand, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Allison Pill, Max Baker, Fisher Stevens, John Bluthal, David Krumholz, Clancy Brown, Christopher Lambert, Jack Huston.
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
The Coen Brothers have had over 30 years success in making films, great critical success, audience fans, Oscars and awards from festivals including Cannes.
Perhaps, over all these years, they have had a special secret Bucket List of all the movie genres they would like to work in. And their output has been quite varied. With Hail, Caesar, they seem to be putting into practice all those wishes. And successfully, both as hommage as well as spoof.
The title. At the beginning of the film, Hollywood, 1951, is a Roman epic called Hail, Caesar. This gives them the opportunity to have ranks and ranks of marching Roman legions, slaves in captivity, and a star for the leader of the legions, Autolychus, George Clooney – adept at speaking some hammy lines, hammy performance as well is getting himself abducted by an alleged study group, naming themselves The Future, actually a Communist cell, giving Clooney lectures on politics and economics, on dialectic, with, of all people, the thinker, Herbert Marcuse, present in the group for discussions. (For Australian audiences and audiences of The Vicar of Dibley, John Bluthal plays Marcuse). Shades of the anti-Communist feeling of the time.
In fact, the focus of the film, is the manager of Capital Studios, Eddie Mannix, played very seriously with touches of irony by Josh Brolin. He is a fixer, on the phone to New York, getting reports from all the film locations, from the directors in the studios, handling temperaments, PR, arranged marriages, stars going into rehabilitation for drying out, dealing with the gossip columnists (in this case, two terrible twins both played very effectively and tartly by Tilda Swinton).
The opening is very surprising for a Coen Brothers, a close-up of a crucifix, extreme close-up of Jesus on the cross, followed by a confessional sequence (later to be repeated more seriously). Eddie is a Catholic (although there is a long history of Jewish heads of studios). He is also ecumenical for Hail, Caesar, because of the sequences with Jesus, the subtitle of Hail, Caesar is a Tale of the Christ (straight out of Ben Hur). In fact, Jesus comes out very well from the film, a reprisal of the Nazareth and cup of water sequence from Ben Hur as well as a final crucifixion scene with Autolychus coming to the cross and making a long speech, more heartfelt after his abduction and reprimands from Eddie, which could have fitted into any Crucifixion story – although, tension is broken right at the end when Clooney forgets his keyword, “faith”. (There are also memories of The Robe and a small homage to The Life of Brian in Roman pronunciations.)
There are lots and lots of other things in the film, Alden Ehrenreich standing out as a cowboy in a B-budget Western where he can do somersaults on his horse, get caught on a tree branch and shoot his enemies and get back on his horse. he is an expert at the lassoo, even with a string of spaghetti, and is seen singing in a romantic western scene. He is very funny when he is transferred, orders of New York, to go into a drawing-room drama where his cowboy gait and his terrible accent need the exasperated but charming attention of the director, played by Ralph Fiennes.
We also go into the editing room for a cameo by Mrs Cohen, Frances Mc Dormand, smoking heavily and then her scarf getting caught in the projector and her almost choking!
There is a musical with a reminder of On the Town and South Pacific, sailors ensemble dance led by the singing and dancing Channing Tatum – his character is revealed to have a much more complex side, to do with Clooney’s abduction. There is Scarlett Johansson doing an Esther Williams in a swimming sequence – exuding innocence until she opens her tough mouth.
Many, many things to enjoy about the film, narrated by Michael Gamblin, some fine casting and performances (and a question for trivial pursuit in the scene where Josh Brolin talks with the director played by Christophe Lambert, what they have in common is that they were both married Diane and Lane!).
The Coen brothers have done it again, and enjoyably.
Tunisia, 2016, 88 minutes, Colour.
Majd Mastpoura, Rym Ben Messaoud, Omnia Ben Ghali.
Directed by Mohamed Ben Attia.
Majd Mastpoura won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the 2016 Berlinale. He is the star of this rather brief film from Tunisia.
Hedi is the title role, a young man, the dominated by his imperious and pompous mother, compared with his allegedly more successful brother who has found of life, family and job in France. He works for Peugeot and is a salesman, but not having much success in difficult financial times.
And, he is about to get married, his mother controlling the setup with the in-laws, asserting the superiority of her family. The fiancee is an attractive young woman, Hedi looking forward to the marriage but realising that he knows very little about his fiancee excerpt from some furtive meetings and phone calls, and then realising she has very limited vision of what life might be.
Hedi travels to a resort town, visiting various companies without any success, trying to promote car deals, fleet deals. He is more than passive and gives up on his work, preferring to go swimming – but is caught out at the beach by a company phone call and foolishly tries to explain it away to an attractive young woman who is part of an entertainment team at the local hotel.
Hedi is attracted to her, which opens up an attraction beyond that he has for his fiancee. The girl is a free spirit, travels Europe as part of a hospitality team in hotels, performs exuberantly on stage, and the couple find that they like each other very much, enjoy each other’s company.
What would happen – especially when his mother has to explain away his absence to the in-laws (who have problems of their own with the father promising jobs but being exposed as paying bribes) and then go in search of Hedi? Will Hedi capitulate as always and go through with the wedding? Has he found a freedom that he never knew existed? Not hard to anticipate and audiences who like him will be most impressed by his outpouring of his feelings about his mother. And, of course, the film ends leaving us wondering what will happen to Hedi and his future.
We do not see many films from Tunisia – and, while a Muslim country, Tunisia always seemed to be much more relaxed than many other Islamic countries. And we might wonder whether Hedi himself is typical of the man of the country.
Japan, 2015, 72 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Kaori Momoi.
Kaori Momoi is a Japanese actress who appeared in in Japanese and American films including Memoirs of a Geisha.
She has adapted a novel in writing the screenplay for this film, plays a central role as well as to rectify film.
It is quite brief, the picture of a woman in California, working as a prostitute, picking up local man, arrested, interrogated, visiting psychiatrist and challenging him in his work, and associated with a murder, the detective present at further psychiatric interviews to determine her role.
She gives quite a vivid performance, melodramatic. And every time shifts as well is imagination shifts with the recurring scene in the elevator where she is going up with the client and the psychiatrist and his wife (in the audience sees in life at home, with the child, going to work) are also passengers in the elevator.
While there are some social comment about life in California, the film is principally a psychodrama for the central character.
KOLLEKTIVET/ THE COMMUNE Competition
Denmark, 2016, 111 minutes, Colour.
Ulrich Thomsen, Trine Durholm, Fares Fares, Lars Ranthe, Martha Sofie Wallstrom Hansen, Helene Reingaard Neumann.
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg.
The Commune is based on some memories of the writer-director, Thomas Vinterberg. Vinterberg had been one of the early associates of Lars von Trier and the Dogme proclamation of the 1990s to make films with purity, naturalistically, using only natural light, relying on plot, performance and basic techniques of filmmaking.
Those who proclaimed the Dogme Manifesto moved on to more traditional as well as more adventurous ways of filmmaking. Vinterberg made a number of feature films in his native Denmark, but he also ventured into the international field, especially in Britain with his version John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tinker, Soldier, Spy and an impressive remake of Far From the Making Crowd.
He returns here to Denmark, going back to 1970s in the aftermath of the hippie movement and flower power and many people professing great faith in commune living.
Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) is an architect working on a harbour project. He inherits a house from his father (of whom he has bad memories from his childhood) and goes with his wife and daughter to inspect the house with the intention of selling it. His wife wants to not only to keep it but has the idea of establishing a commune, his daughter agreeing, but it is something which is not congenial at all to Erik.
Nevertheless, various friends move in and the commune is set up. Members are interviewed as to whether they should become part of the commune, rules and regulations are established, meetings are determined to discuss issues. Everyone takes a turn to cook meals. It seems to seem suit most of the people – except for Erik, who spends a lot of time at work and at lectures at the University where he is harsh in manner, scoffing at some of the students, and reprimanded by another student to whom he is physically and sexually attracted, and she to him. They start an affair.
The relationship is kept secret but is unexpectedly discovered by the daughter, Erik trying to give some explanation and ultimately explaining it to his wife. The question arises whether he should stay in the commune, whether his wife should leave, whether she should stay and the student admitted to be part of the commune. The wife seems to take this situation in her stride but is really deeply affected. This also has repercussions on the daughter who is attracted to a school student and begins a sexual liaison with him.
Ultimately, it is the wife who has to make decisions, whether she stay or whether she goes. This is a huge burden on her as it was her idea in the first place to start the commune. The crisis gives an opportunity, dramatically, for Erik to burst out in anger and some desperation at all that has happened to him and for his wife also to have an angry outburst.
On the one hand, this going back more than 40 years seems a touch anachronistic now, part of the world of the 1970s. On the other hand, it is a reminder of many aspects of human nature, relationships and difficulties in relationships, human foibles, especially when people try to live together.
Tryne Durholm won the Best Actress award for her portrayal of the wife at the 2016 Berlinale.
Simeon is a likeable character, the audience identifying with him especially in some of the challenges to his grandfather. Simeon also likes films and there is a humorous scene when they all go to see 3, 10 to Yuma in an outdoor cinema and one of the young bucks disturbs the screening by riding into the cinema on his horse – which, in fact, leads to the court scene with Simeon and his schoolfriends have been brought by the teacher to address the administration of justice.
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL Competition
US, 2016, 111 minutes, Colour.
Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard, Sean Bridgers, Bill Camp, Scott Haze.
Directed by Jeff Nichols.
Jeff Nichols may not be a well-known name for a film director but in the audience who has seen his films, Take Shelter and Mud, will know that he is the director of great interest. And, while Midnight Special may not be as impactful as the previous two films, it is still a film that commands some attention.
Nichols has said in interviews that he was impressed during his younger days by films which dealt with aliens – benign aliens, especially Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to which this present film pays some homage, to’s ET and Starman, films from the 1970s and 1980s.
However, it begins in an arrest in vain, two men at night conducting a little boy, setting out on a journey that is mysterious with a gradual revelation that the boy himself is mysterious, needing to stay in the dark. But, as the story progresses, the two men around the side of good. They are played by Michael Shanahan, often a sinister character, plain the boy’s father and Joel Egerton playing a local policeman. one of the great advantages of the film is the performance by Jason Leibler as And to mysterious boy.
The scene shifts to The Ranch, the home of a cult group, said by Sam Shepard, were interrogated by the police, especially about their predictions for the end of the world. Behind the scenes, the leader sends some of his henchman to track and the boy, bring him back, because his entrances key is for the date of the apocalypse.
Most of the film is a road journey, the two men with the boy, initially taking refuge with a former disciple of the H The Ranch and then on to find the boy’s mother, played by Kirsten Dunst. A lot of the drama is even interlude and the pursuers. And a lot of the drama concerns the health of the boy, his fragility, his inability to be in the light and growing audience curiosity as to who is, whether he is human or not, despite his parents.
Also in the drama representatives of the police, the FBI, and national security organisations, especially in the form of Paul said via, played by as driver Adam Driver whom the boy himself chooses as the means for communication.
There is some suspense intention as the appointed day approaches and it is necessary for his father to get the boy to the special place – at which the film becomes something of a 21st century Close Encounter.
The screenplay does not offer detailed explanations of what happens but it draws the audience in, and empathy with the characters and their flight as well as the anticipation of what the appointed day will bring.
While the title of the film refers to a song, it is a pity that it does not have a more dynamic title with indications of character and plot.
NEWS FROM PLANET MARS Out of Competition
France, 2016, 101 minutes, Colour
François Damiens, Vincent Macaigne, Veerie Baetens, Michel Aumont.
Directed by Dominik Moll.
News From Planet Mars is a quirky entertainment – French and Belgian style. The film starts evocatively with a space launch and an astronaut floating in space above the city lights. But then he wakes up and it is Philippe, the central character of this film, François Damiens (who played, convincingly, the hearing-impaired father in The Belier Family).
Philippe is the computer expert, reliable and thorough at work, and asked to supervise a rather manic genius, Jerome, played with absolutely irritating conviction by Vincent Macaigne. Not that Philippe does not have other problems. He is separated from his wife, a television correspondent for political European Union conferences. She suddenly lands her children on Philippe. The son is very slow at school and becoming a campaigning vegan, and the daughter is absolutely obsessed with studies, some of which are done with her boyfriend.
We get a glimpse of a nice Philippe’s walking out one night and he accosts a salad man with his dog who will not scoop up his dog poop from the footpath. Philippe encounter him again later when walking his sister’s poodle and has an alternate solution to the scoop!
Philippe’s surname is Mars and the planets do not seem to be an alignment.
Jerome has a crisis in the office and brandishes his hatchet that he carries for crises, throwing it across the room and actually cutting off Philippe’s year. So far, so bad. It can only get worse – and does.
Jerome gets out of a mental institution and turns up outside Philippe’s window asking to come in – and, while claims he will leave, of course, he does not, imposing himself in the house, having class discussions with the son and endorsing his vegan approach, getting the daughter to collaborate (with cash) when he brings his girlfriend from the institution, Chloe, and puts pressure on Philippe to enable her to stay the night. As might be imagined, a lot of potential comedy which is followed through.
Chloe is a protester, especially against the artificial cultivation of animals and their slaughter – which leads to an attempt on a farm, with explosives, Jerome and Chloe driven by another eccentric character in the apartment block, a former chauffeur to French President Giscard De’staing. Philippe and the children save the day. Not entirely.
Part of the nice fantasy is that Philippe’s parents, elderly then deceased, keep appearing to Philippe, giving advice – with the touch of the guardian angel, something which is useful at the end.
Philippe is likeable, Jerome too in his way, and there are lots, of quirkily humorous touches – especially when the son urges his mother to say cucumber in one of her television reports, even Philippe willing her to say cucumber at the end.
THE ONES BELOW Panorama
UK, 2016, 87 minutes, Colour.
Clemence Poesy, David Morrisey, Stephen Campbell Moore, Laura Birn.
Directed by David Farr.
Can you have a horror film without what have become the conventions of horror films? The answer is ‘yes’ if you consider The Ones Below.
This is a film about pregnancy, birth, miscarriage, the desire of women and the desire of men to be parents.
This is a brief, small-budget British film. Kate and Justin (Clemence Poesy and Stephen Campbell Moore) are a couple in their 30s who met at university, decided not to have children for several years but now are happy with Kate being pregnant and everything going well. They move into a rental flat and establish their life there, she working at home on computer fashion designing, he at work in an editorial office.
They then see two pairs of shoes outside the door of the flat downstairs, shoes of the ones below. Theresa and Jon (Laura Birn and David Morrisey) have moved in, Theresa being pregnant and becoming friendly with Catherine, inviting her to swimming exercises, to a lunch with Jon, and to come downstairs to have a meal with them.
Theresa and John have been trying to have a child for several years and she is now pregnant.
Probably that is enough of the plot, occurring early in the film, but quite some complications arise, complications which might be exploited in a horror film but, the manner here in the screenplay is a sense of menace, suggestions, moments of fear, concerns about mental health.
There are some audiences and, especially, critics, who have an intense dislike of happy endings (except, one hopes, in real life), so there are elements in the ending of this film which should make them both sad and happy at the same time.
This is a menace film relying, effectively, on audience response to pregnancy and birth and identification with the characters.
QUAND ON A 17 ANS/ BEING 17 Competition
Friends, 2016, 117 minutes, Colour.
Sandrine Kiberlain, Kacey Mottet Klein, Alexis Loret.
Directed by Andre Techine.
Being 17 was co-written (with French writer and director, Cecile Sciamma, Tomboy, Water Lilies, Girlhood) by the director of the film, Andre Techine, in his early 70s. Perhaps an unusual project, focusing on two adolescents, but also focusing on several adults, both sets of parents of the two boys.
The film is rather magnificent to look at, an extraordinary Alpine setting, majestic mountains, sheer cliffs, forests and rivers and in different seasons, especially the snowy winter and the sunshine of spring and summer.
Andre Techine has always been interested in themes of homosexuality and, almost as soon as the audience sees the two boys and their fierce antagonism towards each other, they will know where the plotline is directed. And they are not wrong.
Damien is smaller and more intellectual than Thomas, the adopted son of farmers, racially different from most of the people in the area. Both of them are the last two to be chosen for the basketball practice sides. It emerges in the class seems that Damien is interested in poetry and literature, although goes to a neighbouring friend for training in martial arts and self defence. Thomas lives on a farm, an hour and a half walk and drive each way to and from school, wanting to be a vet, but his grades are very low. There is an automatic dislike of Damien whom he trips in the classroom. They have several fights and have to be separated by the teachers, Thomas ultimately being suspended from school.
In the background, is Damien’s mother, a kind and efficient doctor, willing to put herself out for anyone, Sandrine Kiberlain. Damien’s father, an adventurer, has joined the military, flies helicopters, is in danger spots, mentions that some of his colleagues have been killed. The family communicates by Skype and, suddenly, there is a pleasing visit from the father who bonds strongly with his son.
The doctor treats Thomas’s mother and moves her to hospital, suggesting that Thomas move in with the family so that he will not have the travel, will be able to do more study and improve his grades. Damien is not amused but accepts something of the sharing of the household – although, the two boys go in to the mountains for a far rather vicious fight, bruises all over which the doctor eventually discovers. Thomas is suspended from school.
Eventually, it is quite clear that Damien is infatuated with Thomas. At one stage, he says that Thomas owes him a favour and he asks him to drive him out to where he has arranged a rendezvous with a man whose address he picked up on a gay website. Thomas says that he knows what is happening – and they fight again, Thomas falling and breaking his wrist.
The relationship is an up and down one, antagonism and infatuation, complicated when news comes of Damien’s father’s death in action. His mother goes into grief and passivity. Thomas tries to help, letting Damien go to school while he looks after the mother. It is nearing the end of the film so we know that it is time for the two boys to express their attraction, experience the physical sexual encounter – and make us wonder what is going to happen to them in the relationship and in the future.
As with all the films of the director, it is particularly well made, looks impressive and has some interesting performances.
A QUIET PASSION Special screening
UK, 2016, 125 minutes, Colour.
Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Jodhi May, Joanna Bacon, Catherine Bailey, Emma Bell, Annette Badland.
Directed by Terence Davies.
This is a portrait of the 19th century American poet, Emily Dickinson.
It is a film written and directed by Terence Davies, who made an impression in the past with his classic Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988 as well as The Long Day Closes in 1992. Davies also made a screen version of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth and a very telling remake of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea.
Davies might be called a fastidious director, great attention to detail, a great sensitivity to human feelings, and setting them within a historic and cultural context. A Quiet Passion is set between the 1840s and the 1880s and Davies re-creates the period, its look, its feel, costumes and decor, sensibilities meticulously. The period covers the lives of very proper Bostonians with a Protestant and evangelical religious outlook, the challenge of the Civil War, the unsettled aftermath. It also covers the media of the period, the newspapers and magazines, especially for outlets for the publication of poetry.
The film opens with Emily asserting herself at the religious school for young ladies, some in the group choosing to be women of faith and Christianity, others choosing to be women of faith but not committed to Christianity, with Edith standing in the middle, her own woman, defying the threats of hell from the prim women in charge. She feels it necessary that her family come to rescue her, her patrician father and her younger sister and brother. She returns to their quiet, comfortable and settled life in Boston. She is skilled in writing poetry but it is not the done thing for young women to be published – especially when they go to a concert and her father disapproves exceedingly of a woman singing in public. Despite the objections of her aunt, the father does make contact with an editor and a problem is published.
Externally, nothing very much happens in Emily Dickinson’s life, though there is an intensity in her inner life. She is played, very effectively, as a traditional spinster by Cynthia Nixon (a long way away from Sex and the City). Her sister is played by Jennifer Ehle, one of those smiling, kind and gentle performances at which Jennifer Ehle is expert. The patriarchal father is played by Keith Carradine.
Edith and her sister stay at home, with some views on slavery and the Civil War, religious in outlook but Edith, especially, refusing her father’s invitation to actually go to church. Their mother is loving but is sickly and dies.
Edith is self-contained, has no desire to marry, is happy and secure in her home life, with some women friends who pass in and out of her life. There is quite a moral crisis when she finds that her brother is unfaithful to his wife with whom Edith is friendly, sharing books and other matters of taste. She emerges as quite intolerant, unforgiving, despite efforts by her sister and brother to mollify her outlook – and she does, at times, admit that she can be far too harsh.
As she grows older, she becomes unwell – and the scenes of her illness and treatment are quite forthright.
On paper, it might be said that the life of Emily Dickinson is not a subject for a feature film. Rather, it might have been effective as a piece of theatre. As it is, it is a film of words with many of the Emily Dickinson’s problems being recited by Cynthia Nixon – although, poems which require more than one reading to grasp their meaning and tone, something not possible with the film. It is a film of tableaux. To that extent, A Quiet Passion is quite theatrical but, with Davies’ sensitivity and sensibility, it does offer an audience an opportunity to get to know and appreciate Emily Dickinson.
UK, 2015, 97 minutes, Colour.
Tom Sturridge, Cush Jumbo, Ed Speleers, Nicholas Farrell.
Directed by Omar Fast.
Remainder is a small-budget film, a British- German coproduction, with locations both in London and in Berlin.
Tom is young man, emerging from a building, looking as if he is going to hale a taxi when suddenly there is a convulsion, glass falling in from a roof and hitting people, and a large piece of masonry falling and knocking Tom unconscious. He is taken to hospital where he stays for quite a long time but eventually recuperates and is released. He is played by Tom Sturridge.
In the meantime, a very smart lawyer played by Nicholas Farrell with his assistant, Greg, a friend of Tom, are planning a large damages case when news comes that Tom has regained consciousness. The compensation issue is taken up towards the end of the film but the screenplay moves in a different direction.
Tom has the remainder of his life but he has forgotten some key elements in his past. He makes contact with Greg, with Greg’s wife, with a number of criminals who were involved in a robbery. With them, he attempts to recreate situations that would jog his memory, a visit by the woman to Oxford which is played over and over again, she forgetting some of the key lines, Tom urging her on. With the criminals, they play a reconstruction of the robbery in which Tom participated. He also sees images of an old woman who seems to speak to him as well as an image of a child.
This put pressure on Tom who does want to regain his life, some fascination for the money, millions of pounds, and with the lawyer, but that is not his main goal.
The film then is a psychological drama and the attempt to reconstruct events in a person’s life to overcome partial amnesia.
SAINT AMOUR Out of Competition
France, 2016, 101 minutes, Colour.
Gerard Depardieu, Benoit Poelvoorde, Vincent Lacoste, Celine Sallette, Andrea Ferreol, Chiara Mastroianni, Michel Houellebecq.
Directed by Benoit Delepine, Gustave Kervern.
This is a French film that one feels one ought to like. Here is Gerard Depsrdieu after all these decades, larger-than-life as always, and with white hair, a farmer going into retirement with a son in his 40s, played by the comedian Benoit Poelvoorde. They both have very good screen reputations. and, in addition, there are some cameos by stars in the past including Andrea Ferreol and Chiara Mastroianni.
Because Robert De Niro had appeared in Dirty Grandpa around the same release time, and De Niro and Depardieu had appeared together in 1900, some of the shenanigans in Saint Amour are reminiscent of the crass shenanigans in Dirty Grandpa. But there is something about American crassness that so emphasises the crass that it loses a great deal of the humanity. It has to be said that in many French films, however crass, they still keep a strong sense of humanity – at least ultimately. That is the case here.
Father and son go to Paris for an agricultural show, bringing their prize bull in the hope of winning the competition. The son, Benoit, has a fondness for wine and so he and his friend, Thierry, make a tour of all the stalls, the equivalent of a Tour de France, putting all the business cards on a map to indicate their achievement in sampling so many wines. Then, it seems a good idea for father and son to hire a taxi and two ago on a real tour of France, sampling more wines as they go.
Their driver is a young Frenchman from Paris, Mike (with quite some dialogue criticising him for having a non-French name) who has a story of his own and wants to make different stops to contact women he has encountered in the past.
This means that it is a road trip, arriving in various towns around France, difficulties in finding accommodation, drinking episodes, down into the South and the spectacular visit to the city of Carcassonne, and into the countryside, finally finishing up at an unusual motel where the proprietress is suffering from early menopause and is desperate to become pregnant as soon as possible – with three compliant potential fathers.
There is some amusement in the various episodes, but Benoit Poelvoorde is often more raucous than sympathetic and Depardieu’s father has some ambiguous attitudes while Mike has alienated the different women he visits.
Back to Paris, exhibition of the bull, possibilities for a prize, but back to the farm and to the pregnant woman with Mike realising that he was wasting time in driving around Paris and that there was a better life to be had down on the farm.
And, the title of the film? One of the wines that they drink!
SHEPHERDS AND BUTCHERS Panorama
South Africa, 2016, 106 minutes, Colour.
Steve Coogan, Andrea RIseborough, Robert Hobbs, Garion Dowds, Deon Lotz.
Directed by Oliver Schmitz.
During the apartheid years, Oliver Schmitz directed a passionate film, Mapantsulal, raising the issues of race, religion and violence in the context of apartheid. He has said that he wanted to make this present film several decades ago but was unable. And now he has made it. And, an arresting and challenging film it is.
The title? This is explained quite late in the film and refers to the guards who work on death row, have to work in close contact with the prisoners, some shepherding, but then having to accompany them to the gallows and participate as butchers.
The setting is 1987. A young man driving a car crashes on a dark night with a minivan and its black footballer passengers. When the vehicles stop and the footballers start to get out of the van, the young man draws his gun and shoots them all dead, lining up the bodies in a row and then disappearing.
The audience is introduced to a lawyer who has been campaigning against capital punishment for many years, John Webber, played by Steve Coogan (very seriously, a far cry from his comedies and his Alan Partridge persona). The young killer, Leon (Garion Dowds) is silent, and unwillingy to communicate with the lawyer and his assistant, seemingly sullen and resigned to his fate. Webber considers his duty done in meeting with the accused.
However, he does have an idea for the defence, consulting a psychologist as well as his brother-in-law who works in the secret forces action programme to discover the effect of the trauma of killing on an individual. He pursues this line, even when the accused does not want it, but is forced to go along with Webber. The judge for the case is severe, a hanging judge and, with some difficulty, he is persuaded to allow this line of action be used. British actress Andrea Riseborough portrays the prosecuting lawyer.
As the trial proceeds, there are many flashbacks as Webber wants to retrace the life of the accused, who joined the prison staff at the age of 17 and killed the men at the age of 19. What emerges in much detail is the ruthlessness of the prison regime, the young man having no preparation for his work on death row, beginning on his second day, having to learn by experience. It emerges that his work requires him to be close with particular prisoners, meals, showers, meeting their relatives, reading the Scriptures to them – and then having to accompany them, make sure that the rope is long enough for their necks to be quickly broken, and clean up the excrement and mess after they die.
The Warrant Officer from the prison comes to court and is an intimidating presence, especially when the accused has to remember his last day, the prisoners revolt and the difficulties in herding the prisoners to the gallows.
Ultimately, the accused cannot remember what he did at the killing. The mothers of the victims are in court challenging Webber as do the parents of the accused. Webber takes the judge and other members of the court to the scene of the murder to try to understand how the accused reacted, especially to the slamming of the door, reminiscent of the sounds of the hanging lever. The court also goes to the prison, with the Warrant Officer demonstrating the pulling of the lever.
While the film has an apartheid background, it is not specifically about apartheid but it is, much more, a film campaigning against capital punishment – with the information at the end about South Africa abolishing capital punishment at the beginning of the presidency of Nelson Mandela in 1995.
An interesting if sobering experience.
SOY NERO Competition
Germany/ France/ Mexico, 2016, 190 minutes, Colour.
Johnny Ortiz, Ian Casselberry, Chloe Farnsworth, Rory Cochrane, Michael Harney, Ami Amean, Richard Portnow, Kyle Davis.
Directed by Rafi Pitts.
Writer-director Rafi Pitts has an Iranian background, having contributed to the Iranian industry with such films as The Hunter and It’s Winter. With his move to North America, he has within this story of Hispanic migrants, the wall which is a barrier between the US and Mexico, the disparate conditions between the wealthy and the poor in Los Angeles, and action in Afghanistan. It is quite an agenda for this film.
It opens with a young man, Nero, Johnny Ortiz, getting across the wall and running through the desert pursued by the police, to be captured, interrogated, and returned to Mexico. It appears that he was brought up in Los Angeles but his family deported and he is trying to get back to the US, seen playing volleyball over the wall with friends on the other side, planning, under the cover of fireworks, to get across the wall again at night – which he does.
His first encounter back in the US is trying to hitchhike, most cars not stopping, but then a businessman, Seymour, stopping with his little girl, chatting with Nero, making statements about borders, disparaging wind turbines by explaining that they run on oil and, therefore unreasonably costly, eventually interrogated by the police at a service station while Nero runs away.
In searching for his brother, Jesus, in LA, he is given the address by the receptionist at the garage where Jesus had worked, and Nero goes to Beverly Hills, once again interrogated by police, but finds the mansion where his brother lives – with the audience guessing, but the film taking a long time with tours of the mansion and touches of luxury living, to reveal that Jesus and his girlfriend actually work for the owners
Nero wants to become an American citizen and knows this can be achieved by serving in the military.
Suddenly, after training, we see him in Afghanistan, at an outpost supervising a no man’s land, encountering a family in the car, stopped by two of his African-American? fellow guards and let through. The superior is an officer who keeps to himself and is shown, later, to have a death wish. The two African Americans are from the East coast and argue with Nero about the relative importance of the musicians from the East Coast rather than from LA.
When another car comes up the road, it does not stop and shots are fired. They call in reinforcements, especially an expert in discovering explosives in vehicles – which is the occasion for some rebels to start firing on the outpost. The result is that the three men try to escape in a truck, it breaks down, they have to make decisions as to what they will do in the desert, to walk to the main base, to determine where the road is, and to avoid further attacks.
The film has an open end, Nero on the road, having survived in the desert, not having his identification with him – and being subject to the same police searches he has experienced earlier. Will Nero be believed? Will he become an American citizen, will he get back to the United States, what kind of life might he have…?
The Iranian director has created a story, a critique of US ways, the challenge, especially, for an American audience.
Mexico, 2016, 105 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Tatiana Huezo.
Temperstad is a documentary from Mexico, written and directed by a woman, Tatiana Huezo, telling the story of two women who suffer because of the influence of the truck cartels.
One of the women is in prison, prisons which are run by private enterprise, was falling foul cartels but, so, is released, goes to the bus station, travels home to be reunited with her son. But, this freedom is tentative, and the woman is always at risk from further attack.
The other woman belongs to a circus which travels around entertaining in the country. Her daughter has a scholarship to the University but his abducted and the woman and her husband are asked to pay ransom. They spent a great deal of energy searching for the daughter, but without success.
The been many thrillers as well is realistic dramas about the prevalence of the cartels, their reach into every aspect of Mexican society, the ruthlessness – but these two stories are effectively told and illicit an emotional response to the two women and the sufferings.
WAR ON EVERYONE Panorama
UK, 2016, 97 minutes, Colour.
Michael Pena, Alexander Skarsgaard, Theo James, Tessa Thompson, Stephanie Sigman, Caleb Landry Jones, Malcolm Barrett.
Directed by John Michael Mc Donagh.
You would definitely have to be in a particular frame of mind to go to see War on Everyone – because the screenplay goes to war on customary and expected values, especially in a police force. This is very tongue-in-cheek material and many viewers may not like the taste.
The writer-director, John Michael Mc Donagh, has a British and Irish background (and is not afraid to target both sensibilities in dramatising eccentric characters and what they have to say and do). He created a strong impression with The Guard, a serious and comic look at an Irish policeman, and difficulties with the letter of the law and with corruption. This is definitely the case with the American policeman here. But then, he made a huge impression with his film about the priest targeted by a victim of sexual abuse, Calvary. Advertising, surprisingly, referred to this film as a comedy but most audiences responded to it very seriously, especially with Brendan Gleeson’s performance as the priest.
This film seem worlds away from Calvary.
The setting is Albuquerque New Mexico, and our two “heroes” Terry and Bob, played by Alexander Skarsgaard and Michael Pena, are continually in trouble from their superior, Paul Reiser, because of their unorthodox way of policing (which includes influencing the law and is not above money on the take). Terry has sexual problems but finishes up having a good relationship with a stripper, Stephanie Sigman. Bob, on the other hand, is a family man, a most congenial wife, Tessa Thompson, two boys, one of whom is definitely overweight and the other sometimes slow but, while he is critical of them, he is often a doting father. He seems the least likely of renegade police officers.
One day they are in a museum and realise that a bunch of criminals have gathered there and are planning a big robbery. They check on their contacts, especially an African-American? man, Reggie, just out of jail who has a nonchalant Irish friend. Snorting cocaine is involved – a lot of it and by all.The robbery takes place fairly quickly but most of those who perpetrated are found dead, except for Reggie who was the getaway driver.
So, just when least expecting it, the action transfers to Iceland, impressively photographed with snow and landscapes as well as some details of Rejkavik. It is here that money exchanges hands and our ‘heroes’ go back to Albuquerque to see what more they can extract.
The further complication is an English Lord, into drugs and sex as well as money, played by Theo James. There is also an androgynous barkeeper who is in contact with the Lord but is pursued in a huge chase by Terry and Bob.
It doesn’t spoil anything to say that it is all building up to a confrontation between everyone and there is no doubt as to who will win the day and return to the hot spring spa in Iceland.
Audiences who enjoy heavy irony, that has a touch of spoof and satire and the touch of lawlessness is really the target audience for War on Everyone.
ZERO DAYS Competition
US, 2016, 116 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Alex Gibney.
Alex Gibney is a master director of documentaries, winning an Oscar for his Taxi to the Darkside about prisons in Afghanistan. He has been quite prolific, subjects ranging from the men of Enron, to WikiLeaks?, to exposing Lance Armstrong, a film on Steve jobs, the exposé of Scientology, Going Clear.
The basic premise of this film is that in the past there have been tensions with nuclear war, chemical warfare, biological warfare – but now we are in an age of cyber warfare. Some of the talking heads here explain that negotiations for treaties on the previous kinds of warfare, for example Gorbachev and Reagan signing treaties in the 1980s, have taken decades but have achieved good results. What is the prospect now for treaties in terms of cyber warfare?
This documentary focuses on the release of the Stuxnet, a self-replicating Internet virus, used by the United States to infiltrate cylinders and other networks in Iran’s nuclear program. The origin was secret, commentators saying they were unable to answer questions, the origin of the virus eventually revealed to be the United States itself.
This documentary is far less outgoing than many of Alex Gibney’s previous documentaries. It is very much a talking film, quite a range of talking heads, practically all male. Where there is a female, it is someone who is talking to the media with the danger of her being arrested. She is presented in computer diagram although, at the end she is revealed as an actress reading the lines on behalf of the anonymous speaker.
The focus of the film is on a virus which most people will not have heard of, xxxxx It was effective in the first decade of the 21st century. One of the issues is the origin of the virus and the question of its attacks on you Iran and its nuclear plants. Visuals of the then President Ahmadinejad (and the photos and video material being studied by American experts to appreciate the developments in the Iranian projects), along with demonstrations against the Americans, statements about cyber warfare and the Americans from Iranian officials.
There follows many, many talking heads who state that they are unable to talk about the virus, that it is part of national security.
What emerges is that the United States government spent billions on the development of this virus in the presidency of George W. Bush – with clips of him and his advisers and decision makers. Also in the picture is Israel, with images of Benjamin Netanyahu, the extreme hostility of Israel towards Iran.
What the film makers have done is to interview people, consult articles and exposés, to draw the conclusion that the Americans were responsible for this virus. Commentators then explain that while it might have had a temporary effect on the delaying of the development of Iranian nuclear weaponry, the Iranians themselves developed many hackers with the capability, and some practice, of infecting US business and the businesses of allies like Saudi Arabia. The question then arises of how much value is there in this cyber warfare and has enough consideration been given to the consequences of its activity, for example the outages of power, the purifying of water and the subsequent deaths from this warfare.
This continues into the Obama administration, scenes of his taking the oath of office, his meetings in the security room, and the power of the legislation or the powers of the President in terms of this kind of waging of warfare.
The film requires some concentration, there is a lot of technical detail, computer screens on the screen. The film is not exactly fear-mongering but it has the capacity for fear-arousing.
The film ends in 2015 with the signing of the accord between Iran and the United States, the severely hostile speeches of Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations, but President Obama expressing great confidence that this is a development towards world harmony and peace.
ZJEDNOCZONE STANY MILOSCI/ UNITED STATES OF LOVE Competition
Poland, 2016, 104 minutes, Colour.
Julia Kijowska, Magdalena Cielecka, Dorota Kolak, Marta Nieradkiewicz.
Directed by Tomasz Wasilewski.
We are not certain what the exact translation of the Polish title would be and the English title looks more than a little suspicious because of the overtones of United States. After viewing the film, the word in the English title that should raise suspicions is that of “Love ”. a more accurate title of the film could be “The Disparate Conditions of Lust”.
This is a story from the early 1990s, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the transition in Poland from Communist government and ideology to a close link with the West and western section of the culture. In fact, in this particular part of Poland the people look rather drab but are eager to move to the United States of non-drabness.
In one way, the screenplay is cleverly written, focusing on three women and how they deal with these changing situations, especially in terms of relationships and sexuality. It can be noted that many VHS films are becoming more and more available in Poland at the time, especially black market pornography videos, which many are eager to copy and look at.
The way that the screenplay is strangely written is that it focuses on three women who are in some ways connected but actually ends their stories without completing them, leaving it to the audience to wonder and speculate about what would happen.
This is particularly the case with the first woman, Agata, married with a daughter, her husband working in a factory, the daughter at school, and she herself involved in selling and hiring out the videos. Her husband loves her. There is quite an amount of churchgoing, to mass, to funerals, listening to sermons, with the possibility for confession, and the blessing of houses. While there are two older priests, there is a handsome young priest and Agata is obsessed with him, listening to his sermons extolling the glories of love (which he also does with a group of schoolchildren in the classroom), but is so disturbed by his presence in the house that she cannot stay while he is doing the blessing of the house and, then, going to the priest’s house, spying on him as he goes naked to have a shower. For those feeling a bit prurient and wondering what is going to happen, the answer is nothing, except that Agata going back to her husband and a vigorously surprising sexual encounter.
The second story is that of the school Principal, very well dressed, authoritative at school, having some dignity in the town. But, in this United States of Love, she is having an affair with a widower who has a teenage daughter. When he finds her clinging, he ends the affair and acts brutally towards her which devastates her and she behaves recklessly with a young man at the railway station – who tells her that she failed her when he was at school and she was the Principal.
The third story is of an older teacher, who loves teaching literature but who has to resign, being asked by the Principal - and living in an apartment block where the others live. She admires the Principal’s younger sister whose husband has been in Germany for several years earning money to send back to Poland. This younger woman runs aerobics classes as well as swimming pool exercise sessions for older women. The teacher wants to become part of the group, pushes her way to the attention of the instructor, invites her to dinner happily, then contrives an accident on the apartment block staircase to elicit more sympathy from the young woman (who is having her own difficulties of loneliness and wants to capitalise on her once-reputation of being a beauty Queen by having a photo shoot – but is used by an unscrupulous photographer). The old lady has some satisfaction in helping the young woman.
Rather drab lives in a rather drab Poland in brief sketches of about 40 minutes each, effective but certainly open-ended.