Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Five furious flaws with Fury

There is a lot to admire about David Ayer's WW2-flick Fury. As with his best film End of Watch, the chemistry between his protagonists and the fast, informal dialogue work extremely well. Another big plus is the violence, which is realistic, brutal and unflinching. The film also boasts one of the most memorable opening scenes of the year during which Brad Pitt stabs a Nazi on a horse. Yet as the film goes on, it reveals some considerable flaws. I have listed the five biggest ones below.

1. War crimes as part of the learning process

The killing of a surrendering enemy is a war crime. Yet, in Fury, this is depicted as a necessary part of a soldier's initiation when Brad Pitt physically forces Logan Lerman to shoot a German soldier in the back. He was stretching his arms into the air while begging for mercy. Incidents like this were without a doubt a common occurrence towards the end of the war, but its cinematic portrayal in Fury is deeply problematic. While the cruelty isn't sugar-coated, the film is on Pitt's side in this scene. Maybe I'm just being too idealistic here, but I'm not sure about executing surrendering soldiers.

2. Depiction of female characters

About half an hour into the film, there is a prolonged sequence in which the crew share a meal with two women after liberating their city. This moment is completely misjudged on a number of levels. It is supposed to reflect on Brad Pitt's desperate wish for normality (all he wants is to sit around a table and eat off a plate), but the characterization of the women is laughably inconsistent. A teenage girl transforms from hiding under the bed in terror to practically jumping Logan Lerman for no other reason that he can play the piano within less than five minutes. The entire sequence just felt creepy and wrong to me.

3. Stupid Brad

I can't go into much detail on this point without revealing a major plot point, but Brad Pitt makes an atrociously dumb decision in the lead up to the film's (therefore unnecessary) climax after the tank breaks down. He even manages to convince his fellow soldiers to join him in his fallacious quest, presumably because they are blinded by his amazing hair. 

4. Stupid Nazis are even more stupid than Brad

Now I am not an expect on tactical warfare, but I'm pretty sure that attacking an immobile tank by running straight at it is not the best idea. Apparently it takes thousands of gunshots and dozens of dead Nazis until 'ze Germans grasp the flaws in this approach and finally decide to deploy their anti-tank weapons. The clue is in the name lads. No wonder they lost the war.   

5. Not enough Jason Isaacs

Because all films need more Jason Isaacs.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Love and disability at the BFI London Film Festival

Since the birth of cinema over a century ago, romance has been one of the medium's most universal themes. Naming ten movies with a love story is easier than naming a single one where it is absent. We see characters fall in love, make a connection, have sex or have their heart broken on the silver screen left, right and centre. When it comes to disabled characters, this subject matter remains a bit of a taboo to this day. The Sessions and Rust & Bone are notable, but rare exceptions.

It was therefore refreshing to discover this gap is filled by three films, from three different continents, in the programme of this year's edition of the London Film Festival. These films tell the tales of disabled teenagers and their discovery of love for the first time. Crucially, they are coming-of-age stories which simply happen to have a disabled protagonist instead of social dramas about the challenges they encounter. There is nothing "abnormal" in these characters; they feel the same emotions and desires as everyone else.

In Brazil's The Way He Looks, perhaps the strongest of the trio, the blind teenager Leonardo gradually discovers his (homo)sexuality. Simultaneously, he faces problems everyone can relate to: overbearing, protective parents, bullying at school, quarrels with his best friend Giovana, first experiences with alcohol, and so on. The only people who really seem to worry about his blindness are his parents.

Laila, the main character in Margarita, with a Straw from India, is an incredibly strong character who takes her love (and sexual) life in her own hands. She is bound to a wheelchair due cerebral palsy, but that doesn't stop her from leaving her home in order to study in New York, where she falls in love with a blind girl from Pakistan. Director Shonali Bose doesn't shy away from portraying her protagonist's sexuality. Her sister suffers from cerebral palsy and the input of this experience clearly shows on the screen. She very quickly gets beyond the superficiality of Laila's condition and understands her mindset.

Classifying the hero of my third example as disabled may be up for debate. The British feel-good film X+Y revolves around Nathan, a young maths-prodigy with considerable social deficiencies. There are hints, but the film never explicitly states the nature of the boy's condition as autism or Asperger's syndrome. Whether he can be categorized as mentally disabled or not is completely irrelevant anyway, as the film's main concern is to convey his painfully unexpressed emotions. He may show them in a different way, but he has the same feelings and anxieties as any teenager. (Read my full review of X+Y here

All three films suffer from a certain degree of sugar-coating (especially X+Y, which borrows the sports-movie formula), but the honesty and affection always shine through. There are very few laughs at the expense of the disabilities and the directors have no hesitation to portray the characters as flawed, egocentric or sultry on multiple occasions. Many of Laila's decisions are morally questionable and Leonardo's attitude towards his parents isn't the best. The audience is not asked to feel patronizing pity for them, but to genuinely understand and relate to them. It is encouraging to see this attitude in films from all over the world and I hope that The Way He Looks, X+Y and Margarita, with a Straw are the first of many.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Review: Northern Soul makes your feet move

A warm chuckle of nostalgic recognition was emanating from the primarily middle-aged crowd at the Friday night screening of Northern Soul through the auditorium of the Duke of York's on more than one occasion. First time director Elaine Constantine (who was 9 at the time the film is set) has created a nostalgic love letter to leather jackets, rare American records and unsuccessful attempts to grow a mustache.

In 1974 Lancashire, the writing is literally on the wall. A large graffiti on the side of a house announces proudly: "Brunswick is a shithole." This act of vandalism was committed by John (Elliot James Langridge), a disenfranchised teenager. Growing up in the North has left him utterly bored and frustrated. It's not until he hears a different kind of music that he finally becomes himself. Together with his new friend Matt (Josh Whitehouse), he hatches big plans: they want to open their own club before going to America. The music is of course Northern Soul.

If you are, like me, unfamiliar with the music, the style and the attitude of the movement, it takes the film a while to settle in this unfamiliar environment. The pop-culture references went over my head and I found it difficult to engage with the characters. After about half an hour, this began to change, as the film finds it groove and the soundtrack steps up a gear. Once the characters make it to a nightclub in Wigan, I found myself tapping my feet to the rhythm of the soul and the romance between John and his crush Angela (Antonia Thomas) is very well played.

Northern Soul doesn't share the unabashed optimism of films like Good Vibrations though. Constantine makes no secrets of the excessive drug consumption that accompanied their intense partying and the story takes some surprisingly dark turns. This doesn't always work, as there is no place for sadness in nostalgia. As I was walking out of the cinema, a woman said to me: "I liked it, but there should have been more happy times. It's fucking Northern Soul!" She has a point, but the film is nevertheless a fascinating portrait of a subculture which is worth discovering and will make it impossible to sit completely still in the cinema chair. You should also keep your eyes open for a very funny Steve Coogan cameo as a Partridge-esque teacher.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Top 10: BFI London Film Festival 2014

As the BFI London Film Festival winds down and normality slowly returns to my daily routine, the time has come to reflect on the past days and pick my favourite films. I actually enjoyed most of the movies I saw in London, thus compiling this list wasn't easy. I did not take films that were featured in the equivalent article from Deauville (Whiplash, It Follows, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) or which I had seen already (Winter's Sleep, Mr. Turner) into consideration. There still was plenty to chose from and honourable mentions go to (in no particular order): The Wonders, Casa Grande, Wild, Mr. Kaplan, The President, X+Y, Madame Bovary, The Duke of Burgundy, Timbuktu, QPR 2-3 Liverpool FC and Margarita, with a Straw.   

10. Foxcatcher by Bennett Miller

Bennett Miller has sneakily established himself as one of  Hollywood's most capable directors. After Capote and Moneyball, he brings us a creepy character study of a spoiled rich man and an underprivileged wrestler. Foxcatcher will be billed as a sports movie, but it is anything but. The performances from Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo are fantastic, but it is very much Steve Carell's movie.

9. The Way He Looks (Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho) by Daniel Ribeiro

An unconventional love triangle is at the centre of this Brazilian coming of age-film. Blind teenager Leonardo discovers his (homo)sexuality, while rebelling against his caring parents and going through a rough patch with his best friend Giovana. Daniel Ribeiro brings a lot of tenderness to this film and explores desire without being able to fall back on the sexual gaze.

8. '71 by Yann Demange

Who could you trust in the streets of Belfast in the midst of the Troubles? There is no clear-cut answer to this question during this time of double-agents, traitors and ulterior motives. When a young British soldier finds himself isolated in the middle of this mess, he has to go to the limit in order to survive. '71 is a terrific, action-packed, violent debut feature, which further establishes Jack O'Connell as a star. 

7. Hard to Be a God (Trudno byt bogom) by Aleksey German

The inclusion of this film in my top 10 surprises even myself. It was my first LFF press-screening of this year's edition and I still don't know what to make of this three hour epic about human decadence. I have however been unable to shake it from my thoughts throughout the festival, which has to be a good thing. I tried to put the experience of watching Hard to be a God into words in my full review.

6. White God (Fehér Isten) by Kornél Mundruczó

A barking mad genre experiment from Hungary, which takes The Incredible Journey and adds Bourne-style chase sequences and plenty of gore. Meanwhile the film attempts to make an ambitious statement about racial discrimination, while also introducing a character study about growing up. And somehow it works. Read my full review here.

5. Leviathan by Andrey Zvyagintsev

If you try to do a drink-along viewing of this film, chances are, that you are either going to run out of vodka or die. Leviathan paints a grim picture of the current Russian regime through the example of a corrupt major in a small town in the north of the country. He will stop at nothing in his pursuit of a mechanic's estate. A gripping, human drama.

4. Phoenix by Christian Petzold

The central conceit of Phoenix is absurd (a husband doesn't recognize his wife after her return from Auschwitz), but Petzold somehow manages to pull it off by creating an almost surreal atmosphere, where anything seems possible. Nina Hoss carries the film with a brilliant performance. In the terrific finale, she rises like a phoenix from the ash. 

3. Far From Men (Loin des Hommes) by David Oelhoffen

According to the director, this is a film about the challenges of political commitment. Viggo Mortensen on the other hand describes it as a study of male friendship. Both are right, as the two ideas are combined intelligently in this slow-burn western. The stunning North African landscape and the gorgeous soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are like characters in the film.

2. Song of the Sea by Tomm Moore

Cartoon Saloon continues its success story after The Secret of Kells with the similarly brilliant Song of the Sea. Think Studio Ghibli, but from Ireland and with Brendan Gleeson's soothing voice. It's a refreshing work of art about magic, music and the acceptance of being ordinary. Probably the year's best animated movie. More praise for Song of the Sea can be found here.

1. Still the Water (Futatsume no mado) by Naomi Kawase

The inhabitants of Amami-Oshima, a small subtropical island south of the Japanese mainland, worship nature as if it were a god. This spiritual idea, that humans are always subordinated to the powers of Earth, is ubiquitous in Still the Water. At the heart of the film is an incredibly touching story about growing up and coming to terms with mortality. As Kyoko's mother is about to die, she finds her first love in the quiet boy Kaito. Kawase has made a slow, tender film, which is simultaneously moving and thought-provoking. Keep your eyes peeled for Still the Water. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

LFF short review: Aussie heist thriller Son of a Gun

Ewan McGregor goes for his best Liam Neeson in the Aussie thriller Son of a Gun. Sporting a (to me) unidentifiable accent, closer to Scottish than Australian, he appears as a tough, unscrupulous, shouty criminal. In prison, he takes the rookie Brentan Thwaites under his wings and pulls him into a world of heavy crime. During the preparations for a robbery, the latter then falls hopelessly in love with Alicia Vikander, an Eastern European girl who "belongs" the boss of the gang.  

The film is a skilfully directed heist thriller, seemingly intent on crowbarring as many clishés into two hours as possible. There is a prison break, clunky dialogue, loud gunfire, a damsel in distress, a MacGuffin, an obvious twist and so on. Writer-director Julius Avery, who makes his feature debut, drew on personal experience when writing the script, but too little of this shines through. Thwaites furthermore makes for an extremely bland hero. The screen presence of McGregor and even more so Vikander eclipse him completely. The action is fun and there are a couple of laughs, but Son of a Gun lacks imagination. Not boring, not bad, but average throughout. Son of a Gun is the cinematic equivalent of a microwave soup.      

Friday, October 17, 2014

LFF review: the wonderful Song of the Sea

The year of 2014 was rather disappointing for fans of animated movies. In the beginning, everything was awesome with The LEGO Movie, but that was it. With the exception of The Wind Rises (which I have considerable reservations about) and How to Train Your Dragon 2, there wasn't much to recommend. Now Song of the Sea finally puts an end to this dry spell. It is the difficult second album for the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, but they master the challenge with flying colours. The film delivers a beautifully told story, despite never quite reaching the magic or the impact of their 2009-debut The Secret of Kells.

Comparing Tomm Moore with the genius of Hayao Miyazaki after only a couple of films is premature, but there are commonalities. Like the now comatose Studio Ghibli, he finds inspiration in folklore that surrounds him, in the local legends and gives them a modern twist. The fact that hardly anyone outside of Ireland (or Japan) is familiar with these traditions is of no importance. It actually adds a certain mystical/spiritual quality to the film which we can marvel at, even if we don't understand it. Song of the Sea introduces us to Selkies (seals that can transform into humans), the Sea God Mac Lir, the Great Seanachai and a terrifying owl-witch.

One of these mystical Selkies is the young Saoirse. On the night of her birth, her mother disappeared without a trace  leaving the girl in the custody of her father Connor (Brendan Gleeson) and her older brother Ben (David Rawle). Together with their loyal dog, they live in a lighthouse on a tiny island off the Irish coast. The absence of a mother figure weighs heavily on the family, but they try to make the best of it. On her sixth birthday, Saoirse discovers a magical shell. It had been entrusted to Ben by the mother before she left, but as soon as Saoirse picks it up, extraordinary things begin to happen. Subsequently, the siblings have to go on an epic adventure in order to save the magical creatures, who have been turned into stone by a witch.

Song of the Sea plays to a slightly younger audience then Kells, but there is a lot to enjoy for the parents as well. The story takes a while to get going, as a large chunk of the first thirty minutes take place in a more realistic world. The character development is a bit slow, but as soon as the adventure starts properly, the film immediately transforms into a gripping piece of storytelling. Despite having no magical attributes, the film's primary focus remains on Ben. He is not special, he isn't "the one"; he has no powers other than his exuberant enthusiasm. Saoirse is the extraordinary one of the siblings. Telling the story from this character's point of view is both unusual and interesting. It's okay to be normal, which is a positive message we don't see often in cinema.

In terms of visuals, the film is somewhat simpler than its predecessor, but there is enormous beauty in its images. The dominating shape is the circle. Time and time again, the picture rests for a couple of seconds on a still image resembling a Hindu or Buddhist mandala. The symmetry and the perfection of the circular form have a calming effect and give the visuals a structure. The soundtrack, a mixture of Bruno Coulais’ original compositions and of Irish traditional music lead by the band Kíla. revolves around a simple melody, which will burn itself into your subconscious for days. All these elements come together and make Song of the Sea one of the year's most gorgeous, tender and moving films for young and old. And it has Irish accents! Go see it now. Go on, go on.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

LFF review: X+Y equals tears+laughter

X+Y celebrated it's European premiere at the BFI London Film Festival in front of an ethousiastic home crowd. Numerous members of the cast and crew had made their way to Leicester square in order to witness the fruits of their labour on the big screen. And they did have a reason to celebrate: Morgan Matthews has created a funny and moving crowdpleaser that will surely find an audience.

Is there a mathematical formula for love? This question occupies Nathan's mind. Nathan has always been different. He is extremely quiet, unable to express himself and shies away from physical contact. The loss of his father in a car crash when he was a child makes matters even worse. The film never specifies the nature of his condition as autism or Asperger's syndrome (and it doesn't matter), but Nathan is also blessed with an exceptional cleverness and talent for mathematics. He is played Asa Butterfield, who comes of age as an actor with this remarkable performance. 

When Nathan is selected to represent the UK at the prestigious International Mathematics Olympiad, he has to leave his comfort zone for the first time. Leaving his mother (Sally Hawkins) and mentor (Rafe Spall) behind, the teenager takes off towards China in order to prepare for the competition. The challenges he has to face would be hard for anyone: enormous pressure to succeed, a foreign culture, social tensions. The maths problems seem easy in comparison. Fortunately he receives help from Zhang Mei, a girl on the Chinese team (Jo Yang who is cuter than a squirrel on waterskis).

The term "Olympiad" in the name of the central competition is more defining than "Mathematics" for the film, because it follows all the tropes of a sports movie. You always know where the story is going, but that is perfectly fine within this genre. The film's heart is in the right place and Morgan Matthews displays enormous affection for his characters. In 2007, he made a documentary about the British maths-team called Beautiful Young Minds , so this is a world he knows inside out. He never looks down on Nathan or tries to explain his "otherness." He simply accepts him for who he is, which is quite beautiful. Another important aspect is the humour. X+Y and particularly Rafe Spall's self-deprecating, witty teacher provide plenty of laughs. 

That said, the film does at times try too hard to be emotional. The narrative loses its way slightly in an increasing number of subplots, which all have to tie together neatly by the end. One character kind of comes across as a Sheldon Cooper-like caricature and a romance between Hawkins and Spall remains similarly underdeveloped, but the actors make it work. These minor flaws don't however take away from the fact that X+Y is a lovely feel-good film carrying an important message about understanding and priorities. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

LFF short review: Reese Witherspoon goes into the Wild

After Into the Wild and last year's Tracks, here comes the next movie about a white person turning their back on society, return into the arms of mother nature and learn valuable life lessons in the process. Reese Witherspoon embarks on the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1,100-mile solo hike along the west coast of the United States. It's based on the true story of Cheryl Strayed, who wrote a memoir about her experiences; adapted by Nick Hornby.

I approached Wild with low expectations, but I was quickly won over by the film's interesting character study. Like most of these films, Wild doesn't manage to convey a sense for the duration of Cheryl Stayed's suffering. Putting three months of walking into two hours is simply impossible, but the film isn't really interested in this anyway. Instead it looks back and turns its attention to ideas about grief and addiction (sex and heroin). Flashbacks are used generously and in an interesting way. They are presented in a non-chronological order, like fragments of memories. We get various glimpses of Cheryl's relationship with her mother (Laura Dern) and the difficult time after her death. Witherspoon does really well in creating this conflicted character and delivers her best performances in years.

It may be quite conventional and sentimental, but the director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) and Nick Hornby infuse Wild with enough edge and warmth to keep the drama interesting. As usual for Hornby, the soundtrack is first-rate as well (Cohen! Simon! & Garfunkel!) and the use of song to convey emotion is one of the film's biggest strengths. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

LFF short review: home invasion thriller The Keeping Room

Imagine Panic Room in the nineteenth century and you have got The Keeping Room. Towards the end of the Civil War, two Union soldiers (Sam Worthington and Ned Dennehy) roam the American south after breaking away from their regiment, leaving a bloody trail of rape and death. They set their greedy sights on three young women (Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld and Muna Otaru) who live alone on a remote farm, where the soldiers encounter more resistance then expected.

The Keeping Room is a simple, but effective home invasion thriller with some interesting ideas about gender and race. Left to their own devices during the war, these women had to "learn how to behave like men instead of wives." The circumstances require them to sacrifice their femininity (or what they think femininity is) in order to survive. The social hierarchy is similarly dispensed. Otaru's character, technically a slave, lives in (almost) complete equality with her mistresses and is not afraid to speak her mind.

The film works thanks to strong performances and its tense, claustrophobic setting. Daniel Barber's (Harry Brown) direction is capable and the violence is appropriately shocking. That said, the film never breaks away from genre conventions. I kept expecting it to turn into something more than a standard thriller with interesting ideas, but it never does. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

LFF review: Hungary goes to the dogs in White God

How do you make a film about racism that is universal, poignant and thought provoking? The solution, which the Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó came up with, is definitely not the obvious one: instead of using a minority to show us the rise of the oppressed, he gives us dogs. He claims that this allegory allows him to avoid many of the taboos surrounding the sensitive subject and cut straight to the core of the issue. This may sound implausible, but White God largely pulls it off and paints an unapologetic, brutal portrait of discrimination. In Cannes, the film was deservedly awarded the prestigious Palme Dog-award (yes, that's a real thing) for the brilliant canine performances by Luke and Body as Hagen, who would give Liam Neeson or Charles Bronson a run for their money.

In terms of genre, the film is an experiment. It never settles on a particular genre, going through several dramatic transformations. After an exhilarating opening sequence set in the deserted streets of Budapest, it begins as an edgy version of Disney's The Incredible Journey. Thirteen year-old Lili gets separated from her pet and best friend Hagen, after her father leaves him on the side of the road. There is emotional bonding between human and animal and, once they are separated, there is a comedic Bourne-style chase sequence in which Hagen and his new canine friends outwit a squad of dog-catchers. Then the story takes a turn for the dark: Hagen is caught by a dog fight trainer and prepared for battle. In the third act, the last shred of believability goes out of the window and the film turns into a genuinely shocking, violent revenge thriller with horror elements (dogsploitation?); including the questionable politics that often accompany this genre.

These aggressive tonal shifts come out of nowhere and are quite blunt, but they also mean that you never know what's coming next. The madness are somewhat anchored by Lili's story. Caught in an awkward stage between childhood and adulthood, she tries to find her place in the world while desperately trying to reconnect with Hagen. Her distant father and her absent mother are of no help. She is the beacon of hope in the conflict between humans and dogs in this extremely pessimistic portrayal of society. Everybody else, whether they have two or four legs, is horrible.

If you can stomach the tonal shifts (some work better than others), there is a lot of fun to be had with this original, positively bonkers movie. White God has been selected as Hungary's entry for next year's Oscar race. It will be interesting to see whether it gets the nod.

Friday, October 10, 2014

LFF short review: Shion Sono feels the beat of the Tokyo Tribe

Almost a year ago, the Japanese filmmaker Shion Sono paved his way into my heart and the podium of my LFF Top 10 with his ultra-bonkers and ultra-violent comedy Why Don't You Play in Hell. This year he returns to the British capital with what has been described as the world's first “battle rap musical.” Tokyo Tribe, based on a best-selling manga, is set in a futuristic Tokyo ruled by violent gangs and thunderous beats.

It's The West Side Story on speed as the various gangs introduce themselves in a medley at the start of the film: "How do thugs live their life? Money and power through homicide?" Into this world enters Sunmi (Nana Seino), a shy girl with kick-ass fighting skills (not unlike Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element) who gets abducted by criminals.

Ironically, the film lacks a bit of rhythm. The mise-en-scène, with its neon lights, graffiti and giant speakers and the omnipresent music are relentlessly overwhelming (see the poster below), which means that the narrative and the characters are always secondary. The lyrics meanwhile often seem ordinary and, with the exception of a handful of inspired moments, there aren't as many laughs as there should be. How much of this was lost in translation is difficult to tell, but Sono never seems to get a firm grip on his crazy concept. The film's final line is rather confident: "Tokyo Tribe? I like it." I'm not sure I did, but there is fun to be had with this mad film.    

Thursday, October 9, 2014

LFF review: Benedict Cumberbatch masters The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game is this year's The King's Speech. Even though it isn't nearly as good as Tom Hooper's Oscar-triumph, there are significant similarities: both films are based on a true story, are set on British soil during the war, star a famous Brit as a socially awkward lead with a stammer and feature a bombastic score composed by Alexandre Desplat. The result is an enjoyable, if ordinary, biopic about the extraordinary Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), one of the great minds of the twentieth century. 

The story cuts back and forth between three time frames. There are some unnecessary flashbacks showing Turing as a schoolboy, already an exceptionally gifted outsider with only one friend.  We also see him in the early 50s, when he was forced to undergo hormonal treatment after being exposed as a homosexual. The bulk of the movie is however taken up by Turing's wartime exploits, when he and his team of mathematicians and analysts achieved the seemingly impossible: they deciphered the German enigma code (a feat that significantly shortened the war and saved millions of lives) thanks to an early computer. 

At one point, Turing says: "People think of the war as this epic battle between civilisations - it wasn't like that for us." He spent the war brooding over a puzzle in a small warehouse near Manchester. As a consequence, The Imitation Game is a character driven drama. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers an excellent performance in this role. He portrays a man who is very much in the closet (not only about his sexuality): he never seems comfortable in his own skin, avoids eye contact, but still manages to convey the character's arrogance and confidence in his abilities. He builds an intense platonic relationship with Keira Knighley, whom I have criticised in the past and probably will continue to do so in the future. Matthew Goode, Charles Dance and Mark Strong (sporting an epic comb over) meanwhile round of the strong cast by delivering convincing supporting turns. 

Any rough edges to the characters or narrative have however been smoothed over in order to maximise the film's emotional impact and make it accessible to a mass audience. Politics are largely forgone; even the prosecution of homosexuals by the British government seems like an afterthought. Director Morten Tyldum (Scandi-noir thriller Headhunters) talks about celebrating uniqueness, about outsiders who are different, who think outside the norm. His film is watchable and moving (in large parts due to the strength of Cumberbatch's performance), but also emotionally manipulative and utterly conventional. And it doesn't quite have the warmth, the humour or the filmmaking skills of The King's Speech to make up for these flaws.


Friday, October 3, 2014

LFF short review: Casa Grande - growing up in Rio

In 2012, the Brazilian Senate approved an affirmative action law for universities, that reserves half the places in the country's prestigious federal universities for black, mixed race and indigenous students. This fresh political climate forms the backdrop of Casa Grande, the first feature by Fellipe Barbosa.

In a wealthy part of Rio de Janeiro, we meet the seventeen-year-old Jean. He lives in a big house with three servants and is about to graduate from a private school. After initial awkwardness, he falls in love with a mixed-race girl he meets on the bus. In this personal bliss, the teenager remains somewhat oblivious to the fact, that the stability of his life around him is slowly disintegrating. His father, a bit of a doofus with the face of an incompetent politician, has lost a significant amount of money in a financial gamble, which puts the family's middle class lifestyle in danger. The new quotas meanwhile will make it difficult to get a place at a good university. Even when one of the servants departs on an "indefinite holiday," the penny doesn't drop.  

Barbosa finds an agreeable balance between the political debates about race and class, and the teenage coming of age story (even if Jean doesn't actually come of age and learns little). He uses non-professional teenage actors alongside soap opera stars and never loses is focus on Jean, compellingly portrayed by newcomer Thales Cavalcanti. Casa Grande is an equally engaging and entertaining tale about growing up in contemporary Brazil.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

LFF review: Hard to Be a God - three hours of decadence

Describing Hard to be a God as an uncomfortable viewing experience is an understatement. Russian director Aleksei German subjects his audience to nearly three hours of unbroken human decadence. I don't even mean the (occasionally) fun abundance luxury and sex, but a far more earthy, basic form of behaviour. There is a particular emphasis on every variety of bodily excrement you can imagine, which are all put to “creative” use.
An opening narration tells us, that we are on the planet Arkanar - identical to Earth, but backward in its development. The Renaissance never occurred on this planet, so humanity is stuck in an eternally rainy or foggy Middle Ages. The narrative (if you want to call it that) is disjointed and confusing. We see this strange world through the eyes of Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), a scientist from Earth who is desperately trying to make sense of his surroundings while also enjoying his role as a sort of futuristic god.  
Hard to be a God is vile, disgusting and far too long, but you can't help but admire the director's resolute commitment. German has been attempting to bring the 1964 sci-fi novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky to the big screen for nearly fifty years and he makes no compromise whatsoever in his adaptation. The black and white images are often striking and his extraordinary camerawork is quite playful. The view is often obscured by random objects appearing in front of the lens and the actors regularly break the fourth wall in order to give a knowing look to the camera (sometimes these shots turn out to be POV, sometimes they don't).
This is what humanity without culture would look like. The debauchery and the barbarism are sandwiched between two pieces of music played by Rumata on a strange instrument at the beginning and the end of the film. In the absence of culture, we would merely be a collection of noises and bodily fluids. German gets this simple point across very effectively, but doesn't really need three hours to do so. It may be self-indulgent nonsense, but Hard to Be a God is a weirdly intriguing, challenging experience. I will not forget this film anytime soon.