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.  

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