Sunday, September 27, 2015

LFF review: The Pearl Button

In 82 minutes, The Pearl Button propels us to the world's largest archipelago, into the cosmos, onto the ocean and back in time. Patricio Guzmán delivers a documentary about water with a deep sense of anthropology, history, science, poetry and personal experience. The director shows no fear of politics either. It is easily one of the films of the year.

The Pearl Button has to be seen in conjunction with Nostalgia for the Light, Guzmán's previous film. They stand separately, yet belong together - Guzmán has described them as a diptych. The attention has shifted from the dry deserts in the North of Chile to the endless archipelago of Western Patagonia in the South, but the approach remains the same. The director presents a coherent thought process across a variety of subjects and draws connections between them. Like the water that serves as the recurrent theme, the structure is loose and fluid. In one section, he talks to the last survivors of an Indian tribe. The water has been a home to these people and their canoes for millennia. The sea is a source of life, but there are also darker sides to the depths of the oceans. After Pinochet's coup d'état in 1973, an event that haunts Chile until today, the water became a cemetery. Thousands of bodies were dumped in the aftermath.

Guzmán does much more to present us with information. His creative choices enter the domain of the metaphysical. The decision to interview the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita for instance is a fascinating one. There is no obvious reason to include him, but he brings up some unusual ideas. The director uses cinema to share a different conception of history. Time, is aside from water, the key to understanding the film. For Guzmán, time is not necessarily linear or even singular. An Indian travelling to England in the 19th century is not only a journey across space; it is also a form of time travel.

The obvious point of comparison are the documentaries of Werner Herzog, but The Pearl Button is altogether more positive and optimistic. Whereas the Bavarian would surely condemn the government's treatment of the native population as an incurable symptom of the human condition, Guzmán looks further and begins to imagines a different planet. Here, the Indians were allowed to live in peace. The Pearl Button is an extraordinary piece of work, which manages to reduce the distance between past and present as well as heaven and earth.   

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

LFF review: Grandma

2015 is shaping up to be one of the biggest years in Lily Tomlin's career.The 76-year-old earned an Emmy-nomination for her starring role alongside Jane Fonda in the Netflix series Grace and Frankie. She is also back on the big screen with Grandma, in which Paul Weitz (American Pie, About A Boy) gives her a role perfectly suited to her comedic talents. This is the crowdpleaser that last year's flop Tammy could have been. Tomlin plays Elle, a sassy feminist and poet. She is going through a breakup with her girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer in yet another thankless "Judy Greer supporting role"), when her granddaughter Saige (Julia Garner) unexpectedly shows up on her doorstep. She needs 600 dollars for an abortion and his afraid to ask her mother.

This plot device has a double function. From a comedy standpoint, it allows the film to turn into a traditional road movie. Elle is broke and, in an attempt to free herself from capitalist pressure, has shredded her credit cards and turned them into a wind chime. So she and Saige drive around in a rusty Dodge Royal (Tomlin's actual car) in search of money. Along the way, they encounter a number of colourful characters and old friends. This is the kind of film the Americans are really good at sometimes: a semi-serious feel-good movie where the characters learn from each other. At 79 minutes, the film is also not a minute too long.

The two lead actors make for a great pairing. Garner does well at playing the straight woman, which allows Tomlin to cut loose at will. Like an older version of Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise, she refuses to take shit from anyone. Elle is the cool grandmother we all want - the kind that beats up your loser boyfriend with a hockey stick and steals his weed. Tomlin's comedic timing is impeccable and her performance is a joy to watch.

The supporting cast, most of whom only have one scene to leave their mark, is impressive too. Laverne Cox (from OITNB) and Marcia Gay Harden deliver memorable cameos, but one actor stands out: Sam Elliott and his lovely, lovely, lovely voice. He shows up for ten minutes and manages to be funny, creepy, warm and moving. In an odd awards race, his performance might even receive some attention this winter.

Grandma also delivers a sensitive take on the controversial subject matter of abortion. The film is firmly pro-choice (at one point, there is a clear dig at Juno), but doesn't preach or trivialise the issue (within the confines of mainstream cinema). Weitz makes sure that the audience understands the emotional and physical consequences of Saige's decision. Access and price may be problems, but it is still better than the alternative at the end of the day.

Grandma is a sweet, sensitive and short dramedy with a modern spirit, and Lily Tomlin is a true star. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

LFF diary day two: Cronies, Virgin Mountain and Madame Courage

Executive producer Spike Lee presents a Michael J. Larnell joint. Cronies (a slang term for a close friend or companion) plays like a bromance-version of Lee's 1986 debut She's Gotta Have It from the very first scene. The slick black & white cinematography, the talking to the camera, the nerdy protagonist are all there. Louis (George Sample III) and his white colleague Andrew (Brian Kowalski) want to hang out. They are joined by Louis' childhood friend Jack (Zurich Buchner) for an afternoon of chilling and casual drugs. The result feels like an old-fashioned graduate film (mainly because it is), but it has a lot of charm. Buchner owns the film with his complex portrayal of Jack as a poser with a soft interior. Larnell also manages to find his own voice in his hometown of St. Louis and provides an interesting take on contemporary race relations and integration.

Virgin Mountain is not an innovative or radical film, but it shows emotional complexity and a great deal of heart. It tells the coming-of-age story of a cripplingly shy middle-aged man named Fúsi. He lives with his mother, is bullied at work, plays with WWII-models and spends his Friday nights alone at the local Chinese restaurant. Gunnar Jónsson is the heart and soul of the film as the central character with a terrific non-performance. Acting is often about big speeches and emotional breakdowns, but sometimes it's simply the art of doing very little. Fúsi is never pathetic (although his life clearly is) thanks to Jónsson's warmth and humanity. He looks and moves like he was born to play this part. Even during the rare moments of activity, he appears vulnerable and passive. Inevitably, Fúsi meets a girl. Sjöfn (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir) could have been developed a bit further, but at least she is not your typical Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She arrives with her own set of problems and anxieties, which don't discourage the admirable Fúsi. Virgin Mountain is a sweet character study that is worth a look if you are in need of a good cry.

Finally, Madame Courage was a film I didn't really warm to. The experienced Algerian director Merzak Allouache tells the story of an unstable teenager from the slums around the city of Mostaganem. One day, pickpocket Omar (Adlane Djemil) becomes infatuated with one of his victims. He follows her home, returns the necklace he stole and starts to linger outside her apartment building for no apparent reasons. Madame Courage is a film that is fine on many levels (well made, social commentary, performances), but fails to excel in any category. The frequently irritating protagonist is not very relatable, which inhibits an emotional connection from the audience. Ideas, such as Omar's drug consumption, are introduced but never developed further. I found it difficult to care.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Other writings

Here is a list of articles and reviews I wrote for other publications:

- for

- for IGNiTE Film Fans: 

LFF diary day one: Bang Gang, The Club and The Forbidden Room

At the BFI London Film Festival, press and industry screenings traditionally begin very early. This gives delegates the chance to work their way through a portion of the mammoth-programme (238 films from 72 countries) before the official opening night on October 7. As a result, I get to spend the majority the next couple of weeks in one of my favourite cinemas watching movies. Yay! During this time, I will (attempt to) keep a daily diary and write a few words about every film I see. It appears that this plan has at least worked for the first day, so here we go.

Everyone was still cheerfully discussing David Cameron's porcine adventures, when the screenings kicked off with a bang - a Bang Gang to be precise. Eva Husson's debut feature about a group of high-school students who start organizing orgies shows that the French remain very good at making (and modernising) French movies. The film is much sweeter and conservative than the subject matter suggests. At its best, it captures and understands a generation of young people who stalk each other's facebook profiles and send naked selfies. The teenagers in Bang Gang may take things a step further than most of their peers, but their behaviour, angst, and pleasure is always authentic. The performances and the electronic soundtrack also deserve a positive mention. At its worst, the film turns into a moralistic PSA for sex education with heavy-handed metaphors and unnecessary voice-over narration. The final twenty minutes are determined to wrap everything up nice and neatly, which robs an interesting film of its complexity. Bang Gang may not be the next The Graduate or Y Tu Mamá También, but it remains a solid debut. I'm interested to see what Husson does next.

After a hastily swallowed lunch, a cinematic treat awaited. Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín recently celebrated an international success with his political satire No, which went on to pick up an Oscar nomination. Now he is back with The Club, a bleak examination of the Catholic Church and its copious problems, which has already picked up the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlinale. Where do delinquent priests go after they have been disgraced and excommunicated? They don't go to jail, but they are sent to a seaside "retirement home," where they are to repent by living in isolation according to strict rules. The Club delves into the infinite grey areas of Catholic morality, sin, and the lack of forgiveness. The Church's attempts to modernise itself are embodied by a new arrival at the home: Father García (Marcelo Alonso). His efforts are however not free of moral corruption either. We also get the victim's perspective in the form of the unstable Sandokan (Roberto Farías). The film begins with a violent suicide and doesn't get much more cheerful thereafter. Larraín's softly-lit images are almost completely devoid of colour, but he manages to find beauty in the bleakness. The Club will not convince everyone, but it is a film that will make you think and want to discuss it with others. It is the work of the filmmaker who is not afraid of being openly political or tackling difficult subjects, which has to be applauded. If you enjoyed Calvary (with which the film shares a morbid sense of himour) or Far From Men, this is a blessing for your film taste.  

During the festival, The Forbidden Room will be shown on the giant IMAX screen as a special gala for the experimental strand. When it comes to avant-garde cinema (or indeed writing about it), I am admittedly not an expert and I often have my problems with feature-lenght experimental films. Jean-Luc Godard's celebrated Goodbye to Language for instance was an ordeal. The Forbidden Room on the other hand was an extraordinary pleasure. Unlike Godard, Guy Maddin and his co-director Evan Johnson demonstrate a sense of humour and playfulness. Maddin's work is a blind spot in my cinematic knowledge, so I came to The Forbidden Room without expectations. The film is a colourful feast for the eyes which makes just about enough sense to retain the audience's attention for 130 minutes. According to the festival programme, the directors assembled the film from footage shot at live happenings at Montreal's Phi Center. The goal was to channel the spirits of silent films lost to the archives. Don't worry, the result is not as pretentious as it sounds. Structured like a Babushka doll, one absurd storyline flows into a second, which randomly prompts a third and so forth. Strange does not begin to describe it: Louis Negin teaches us how to bathe, there is an awards-worthy, Python-esque song about bottoms, and one lengthy sequence shows us the dream of Udo Kier's moustache. Meanwhile Maddin constantly plays with the cinematic form, colour, sound, and intertitles. The Forbidden Room is an endlessly creative and fascinating journey of epic proportions - for those who have the patience to embark on it. If the quality of the films remains this high, I will have a great few weeks.