Monday, September 29, 2014

LFF short review: Álvaro Brechner's Uruguayan dramedy Mr. Kaplan

Growing old isn’t easy, especially if you have regrets. Since fleeing from the Nazis as a child, the now 76-year-old Jew Jacop Kaplan (Héctor Noguera) has made a decent life for himself in Uruguay. He is lives in a decent Montevideo apartment and is surrounded by a loving family, yet he feels that something is missing: he wants to make a lasting impression, he wants a legacy. After a brief identity crisis at a wedding, he launches himself head over heels into the investigation of an elderly German immigrant, whom he believes to be a war criminal.

What ensues is essentially Nebraska, with a Nazi in the place of a million dollars. We witness the clumsy efforts of Jacob and his chauffeur/friend/accomplice Wilson (Néstor Guzzini) to assemble incriminating evidence with a mixture of pity and bemusement. Director Álvaro Brechner deals with the themes of coming to terms with mortality and the futility of human existence in a somewhat ordinary way, but he tells this story with a lightness of touch, which makes for an enjoyable, diverting viewing experience. The visuals are quite restrained, but there is a wonderful standoff in the vein of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Mr. Kaplan is the best (and admittedly only) Uruguayan film I have ever seen.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Deauville Top 10 part two: 5.-1.

Part one: here 

5. Red Army by Gabe Polsky

Red Army is a sports documentary that is not really about sports. Ice hockey fans will know all about the exploits of the Soviet national team (which was actually a faction of the red army) during the 1980s, when the completely revolutionized the game with their free flowing passing strategy. The film takes the story of this team and the individuals behind it as a starting point for an examination of the cold war and of the to us often incomprehensible Soviet mentality. Why didn't any of the players give into the temptation of earning millions in the NHL and defect while travelling abroad? Why did they put up with the radical training methods of their coach (a former KGB man without a hockey background) for so long? The fear of authority and the power of the state were strong at that time, which still has repercussions in Russia today. At the forefront of the documentary are a series of interviews with the former captain of the team, Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov. Fetisov is an intriguing character, who never reveals more than he wants to. He is brilliant at sidestepping the director’s more difficult, political questions (you will understand why by the end of the movie), which makes him a fascinating subject..

4. The Better Angels by A.J. Edwards

If you don't like the cinema of Terrence Malick, you probably want to give this film a miss. His fingerprints are all over A.J. Edwards' debut feature The Better Angels. Edwards, who has a long-standing professional relationship with Malick (he was an editorial intern on The New World and edited To the Wonder), seems to have picked up quite a bit from his mentor: the focus on emotion over narrative, the ideas of spirituality in nature, of idealized, angelic women and prominent organ music are all there. The film is supposedly about the childhood of Abraham Lincoln (I barely recognized Daniel Day-Lewis as a 10 year-old), but the future Honest Abe is more of an idea than a character. As a symbol for traditional American values, he looks at his family as a silent observer, sucking up all kinds of information. Learning about nature from his father (Jason Clarke) is equally important than the traditional forms of education, represented by the local school teacher played by Wes Bentley. As you would expect, this is a beautiful film. The camera hovers through the forest, gazes down at the greenery and upwards at the treetops. The black and white images are crystal clear and, at 90 minutes, the film doesn't overstay its welcome either. It's not a Malick, but it comes close.

3. Cold in July by Jim Mickle

Cold in July already played in UK cinemas in June to some acclaim. The thriller’s dark atmosphere and twisted sense of humour are the primary appeal of Jim Mickle’s work. In the opening scene, Michael C. Hall, a Texan redneck who works in a framing store, accidentally kills a burglar in what the police quickly dismisses as self-defence. After wiping the blood of the walls and throwing a cloth over the stained couch, everything goes back to normal. However, Hall’s character is shaken by the incident and can’t get it out of his mind. Then his victim’s father (Sam Shepard), who has just been released from prison, turns up and starts making threats. I won't reveal further details about the plot, but the film completely changes direction twice after this, which keeps matters interesting (especially once Don Johnson turns up and shakes everything up). The real pleasure of Cold in July lies in the morbidly comedic tone, which is pitched at the perfect level. Mickle and his actors never take themselves seriously and clearly had a lot of fun with this over the top story. 

2. Whiplash by Damien Chazelle

Whiplash arrived in Deauville with a considerable reputation, having dazzled critics in Cannes and Sundance (where it won the Grand Jury Prize). It received a similar reaction in Normandy: an impressive standing ovation and two awards. The hype does indeed not disappoint. Even if you don't like jazz, you can't help being swept away by the intensity and the brutality of the film and its incredible central performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. Damien Chazelle manages to get underneath the surface of blind ambition and the sheer will to succeed of both the young drummer Andrew and his teacher Terence Fletcher, who clash in an epic psychological battle. The audience never quite knows whether to laugh or to wince (usually ending up doing both at the same time) at the uncensored verbal abuse that J.K. Simmons hurls at his students in order to get the absolute maximum out of them. Everybody who has had a tough music teacher (or similarly a coach in sports) can relate to this story, which is told in an intelligent, unsentimental way. Whiplash builds tangible tension in an unstoppable crescendo, which finally collapses with a bang right before the end. Expect to hear more about this film come awards season.

1. Life Itself by Steve James

Picking my favourite film from Deauville was a very personal decision. I was always likely to feel affection for Life Itself, a documentary about the late Roger Ebert, one of my heroes. Since discovering an episode of his TV-show as a DVD extra on my copy of Pulp Fiction several years ago, the legendary critic has become an important part of my cinema education. I must have read hundreds of his reviews, every single one full of life and insight. His memoirs, which were a huge influence on the documentary, as Ebert passed away before filming was completed, provided an authentic glance into his personality. The film manages to do a similar thing in a very moving fashion. It is a sentimental, affectionate, tear-jerking, "American" celebration of Ebert's extraordinary life, but it is effective and, like its subject, it never feels dishonest or inauthentic. Steve James, best known for the Oscar-nominated basketball documentary Hoop Dreams, uses email correspondence, interviews with Ebert's wife, family and friends and passages from his book to craft this portrait, which had me in tears from beginning to end. The most upsetting moments are the scenes he shot of Ebert, who lost the ability to speak and eat ten years before his death (his chin and part of his face had to be removed due to severe cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands), in hospital during the final stages of his life. This sight is equally terrifying and inspiring. Everyone with an interest in film criticism should watch this film and learn from Roger Ebert.  

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Deauville Top 10 part one: 10.-6.

10. Infinitely Polar Bear by Maya Forbes

Infinitely Polar Bear manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of films about a single father taking care of his children and makes up for its flaws with an overdose of warmth and charm. Mark Ruffalo stars opposite two superb child actresses as the bipolar former hippie Cameron. It is also nice to see Zoe Saldana play a human being for once as Ruffalo’s ambitious ex-wife, who leaves the kids in his custody. Writer-director Maya Forbes simply lets the cast do their thing and adds heart and excellent music to the film. There is a lot of screaming, swearing and chaos, but even more love, in this unconventional household, which quickly grows on the audience. Infinitely Polar Bear is a simple, fun movie, which doesn't attempt to lecture us about depression or parenthood. The sight of the incredible Hulk jumping around in red underwear and the hilarious “The Shining”-reference are worth the price of admission alone.

9. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night by Ana Lily Amirpou

This Iranian vampire thriller was one of the most unusual and most interesting films to play at the festival. Read my full review of this one here.

8. It Follows by David Robert Mitchell

It Follows is in spirit a schlocky, camp B-movie, which could easily have been made by a young John Carpenter or Sam Raimi, with a hint of the post-modern self-awareness of Cabin in the Woods. The film opens on a scantily dressed teenage girl sprinting along a suburban street in complete terror, getting into a car and driving off to the beach. The next shot shows her blood-stained body in a stomach-turning pose. The cause of her death was by a mysterious power, which always follows its target in a walking pace. The only way to pass this curse on to another person is by having sex with them, which is precisely what happens to our young protagonist Jay (Maika Monroe) after she sleeps with her boyfriend. This simple premise is incredibly effective and the director has a lot of fun playing with our expectations and scaring us in unusual ways. The polished cinematography and stunning visuals (the director wanted to create a film that is simultaneously beautiful and disturbing) make It Follows one of the best horror films of the year.

7. Camp X-Ray by Peter Sattler

A film about the US-Army Guantanamo Bay detention camp was always going to stir many debates, but this film mostly avoids controversy while still making thought-provoking points. It pitches a young rookie-guard (Kristen Stewart once again proving her talent) against a well-educated, talkative detainee (A Separation’s Peyman Moaadi) in an intense psychological duel. The better part of the film’s running time consists of the mind games and the tentative steps toward friendship between the two, which are carried out through the small window of a firmly shut cell door. Their conversations start to raise doubts in the young soldier’s mind. Is the imprisonment of these people the right thing to do? Is the treatment of the detainees excessive? Is she actually one of the bad guys? There are obviously no clear cut answers to those contemplations and fortunately, the film doesn't try to give us any. This is a very good thriller with two excellent performances and it should be the origin of quite a few fascinating pub-discussions afterwards.

6. Love is Strange by Ira Sachs

John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a devoted gay-couple in the latter stages of their lives – what else do you want? After spending four decades together, Ben and George finally get married in the film’s opening sequence. An extremely joyous occasion, celebrated with plenty of vine, songs and laughter, which soon has unfortunate consequences: George loses his job as a music teacher at a catholic school and they no longer can afford to keep their apartment. The temporary solution to this dilemma is a painful separation: Ben moves in with his nephew and his family, whereas George pitches his tent on the couch of his former neighbours, two gay policemen. What follows is an incredibly sweet portrait of these two people, who cannot cope apart. The movie could not be more New York if it tried (every character is a musician, artist, writer or filmmaker and there is A LOT of complaining about expensive rent-prices) and the story doesn’t really go anywhere, but there are some beautiful truths about love and companionship to be found in this story. You really enjoy spending time with these two. Loves isn’t strange, love is completely natural. 

Part two: here

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Competition: Catherine Keener grieves in War Story

War Story by the young American filmmaker Mark Jackson starts off in a very impressive way. We see Catherine Keener as a traumatized war-photographer returning from Libya after the killing of her colleague. She checks into a Sicilian hotel and completely isolates herself. She ignores her incessantly ringing cell phone and for no apparent reason starts to rearrange the furniture in her hotel room. Hardly any lines of dialogue are spoken in those contemplative opening scenes, which are set to a haunting score. We form an understanding of this woman’s suffering, despite not knowing anything about her.

Unfortunately, the film never manages to really kick on after the opening. Before the screening at Deauville, the director addressed the audience in fluent French and paid tribute to his father, a Vietnam-veteran who is about to fulfil his lifelong dream of seeing the halls of the Sorbonne in Paris. This moment was more moving than anything that followed. War Story remains trapped in the realm of interesting and thought-provoking, but never manages to develop any real tension or emotional punch.

The pace is very slow as Keener's character soon meets an illegal immigrant (played by the French actress Hafsia Herzi) who reminds her of a young girl she once photographed. In a selfish act of altruism, she decides to help the girl to get a desperately needed abortion in order to overcome her own issues. The debates surrounding war photography and the unbelievable risk these people take re fascinating and, particularly in light of recent events, topical, but Jackson doesn't concern himself too much with them. The exception is a beautifully shot cameo by Sir Ben Kingsley as Catherine Keener’s mentor. The main discussion of the film surrounds the more universal themes of grief, guilt and trauma.

The main reason, why the film nevertheless kind of works, is the brilliant central performance by Catherine Keener, one of the very best actresses working in American cinema today. Here she plays against type; we barely see her luminous smile or hear her memorable voice. The film completely relies on the actress to make the narrative work, and fortunately she delivers. Keener manages to convey extremely complex emotions through the simple act of taking a puff on a cigarette. The screen never feels empty when she occupies it. Her performance and the interesting subject matter make War Story worth 90 minutes of your time, but there are definitely much better films to be made about this.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Competition: Iranian vampire-thriller A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

An unconventional love story between two young people stands at the centre of the Iranian vampire-thriller A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the first competition film screened at Deauville this year. He is Arash (Arash Marandi), a good-looking, wannabe rebel in the vein of James Dean: he wears tight, short-sleeved T-shirts, driving an American car and breaks his hand punching a wall within the first five minutes. She (Sheila Vand) is a quiet girl who spends the night wandering the streets of the Iranian ghost-town Bad City at night. She is also a vampire. Once their paths cross, they form an instant, unspoken but deep, connection. Since neither of them have an awful lot to say, they bond by listening to (excellent) music.

The unnamed vampire shadows a prostitute and protects her from the misogyny she encounters in her everyday life, preying on the men who mistreat her. She is neither a malicious, nor a tortured character; she acts with completely detached passivity and seems empty like her stare. The film paints a very unflattering picture of Iranian men. The only male who manages to appeal to the girl’s emotions is Arash, who has a strongly developed sense of decency (early on, he brushes off advances from his employers’ daughter).

The intimate moments between the young leads are the strongest scenes in Ana Lily Amirpou’s very confident feature debut. She makes up for the obvious lack of funds through an intense use of sound and through the creation of striking images (a pile of dead bodies below a bridge, an extreme close-up of a cat’s eye, Arash staring blankly at a street-lamp while high…). Shot in black and white, Amirpou constantly plays with genre. It starts of as a neo-noir, turns into an exploitation flick after a detour to the spaghetti Western, before introducing more classical horror elements. The result is a pleasant mash-up and there are shades of an early Robert Rodriguez in Amirpou’s work, which feels very much like a first film (in a good and a bad way).

In terms of narrative, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night does lack a bit of focus in order to reach the heights of Only Lovers Left Alive or Let the Right One In. A subplot involving Arash’s dying junkie-father lacks urgency and emotional impact, despite a strong performance by Marshall Manesh. The acting in general is very convincing and the film will find its audiences among genre-fans, who will appreciate the committed weirdness of Amirpou's vision.