A Useful Life (2010)

A Useful Life starts off as a nostalgic throwback to life at the cinema before the real world intervenes to drag the main character out of the theatre and into the streets, where he gets to experience a very movie-like romance.

Useful LifeUruguay
3.5*

Director:
Federico Veiroj

Screenwriters:
Arauco Hernández

Inés Bortagaray
Gonzalo Delgado
Federico Veiroj
Director of Photography:
Arauco Hernández

Original title: La vida útil

Running time: 65 minutes

An opening title card warns us that what we are about to see is not reflective of the real Cinemateca Uruguaya, the South American country’s 50-something-year-old institution sticking up for the seventh art. Perhaps the title card is necessary for local audiences, as the film features not only the premises of the real movie house in the heart of the capital, Montevideo, but also the real-life director, Manuel Martínez Carril, in the same capacity as a fictional character.

Straight after the title card, the film’s entire credits follow, just as they used to in the old days – generally speaking, until the mid-1970s. While we are immediately positioned in the present with the opening image (a FedEx package), the feeling of nostalgia remains, particularly because we see so little from the modern world inside the Cinemateca. It is an environment that is almost hermetically sealed to the passage of time until financial calamity threatens to topple the house of cards in one fell swoop.

The main character is the heavy-set, cream-coloured-suit-wearing, expressionless-’til-the-end Jorge, played by Jorge Jellinek. (As an aside, it is worth noting that everyone is this film is named after the actor or actress that plays them.) He is the manager of the cinema and has been with the institution for half its existence. In fact, he has devoted so much of his life to spreading the gospel of celluloid that he does not have a life beyond the building’s walls and is living with his elderly father.

But the Cinemateca, despite its celebration of the world of fiction, has to face the cold, hard reality of the present: It owes eight months in rent, has a steadily declining viewership and needs to repair its projectors, which would cost a stunning amount of money. And the foundation that has supported them does not have money to waste on what by all accounts appears to be an enterprise that will never recover.

The night of the last picture show comes much more quickly than anyone had anticipated, in spite of Jorge’s tape-recorded plea to the audience before one of its last screenings that, “You need the Cinemateca, and the Cinemateca needs you”. The halls of the cinema are decorated with reminders of the history of the art form – an artistic rendering of Eadweard Muybridge’s galloping horses. The film also contains an encomium to films from years past, such as Alexander Nevsky, in an absolutely mesmerising five-minute-long shot at the halfway mark that is static and unbroken and features Martinez explaining the difference between knowing (facts about) cinema and feeling it.

Luckily for Jorge, the end of this chapter in his life is followed by an adventure of cinematic proportions. In fact, at this point, two-thirds into the film, there should have been a switch to brightly lit Technicolor, because the contrast in tone with what came before is so sharp. But while the artifice is more pronounced, director Federico Veiroj pulls us closer on two occasions by having us see the world from Jorge’s point of view: once, comically, when he takes off his glasses, and another time, more tongue-in-cheek, when he is having his hair washed at the salon.

The Useful Life is not entirely successful at melding the two parts nor at justifying the sudden shift from the one to the other, but the film’s short running time (barely surpassing the one-hour mark) certainly works in its favour. This is a film for cinephiles who can appreciate the poster of Akira Kurosawa’s most expensive film, Ran, in the background when Jorge realises the cinema’s finances are in dire straits, who get shivers down their spines seeing the director serve as Spanish voice-over artist for a screening of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, or anyone else who has been to and experienced the joy of seeing a many-decades-old film on the big screen.

It doesn’t have the passion or the wit of a Cinema Paradiso (after all, these are drastic times for theatres all over the world that are showing non-contemporary or non-commercial films), but its focus on a tiny group of characters keeps our attention and show that movies are always a critical part of a life worth living.

Volcano (2011)

Rúnar Rúnarsson’s heart-wrenching drama about a recent retiree whose life is turned upside down when his wife has a serious stroke is eerily similar to Michael Haneke’s Amour, which was released nearly two years later.

volcano-eldfjallIceland
4.5*

Director:
Rúnar Rúnarsson

Screenwriter:
Rúnar Rúnarsson

Director of Photography:
Sophia Olsson

Original title: Eldfjall

Running time: 100 minutes

The only time we see the tragic events inflicted on the population by the titular volcano is during the opening credits. During the rest of Icelandic director Rúnar Rúnarsson’s stunning and sensitive début feature, the tragedy is much more low-key, although no less heart-wrenching, than during those opening minutes (archive footage shows scenes of people fleeing at the time of the island’s most famous eruption) set to the soaring sounds of a choir – an approach the director would repeat in his equally perceptive second feature, Sparrows.

On the whole, Volcano tells a story that is strikingly similar to Michael Haneke’s Amour (even including the emotionally shattering climax): When an elderly woman has a stroke, becomes paralysed and requires constant care, her husband, equally advanced in years, has to cope with the situation while awaiting his own inevitable demise. However, the notable difference is that Haneke was nearly the same age as his 70-something main characters. Rúnarsson, who was only in his early 30s, arguably has as firm a grasp on the subject matter as his Austrian counterpart, who had accumulated much more life and professional experience by the time he made his film two years later.

The main character is Hannes (Theodor Júlíusson), who has just entered retirement after nearly 40 years as a janitor at a school in Reykjavík. His marriage to Anna (Helga Jóhannsdóttir), the mother of his two children, is a ritualistic affair. She cooks, he complains about her cooking, and, even though they sleep next to each other, there is very little communication, understanding or obvious signs of love. That is, until Hannes’s boat takes on water, he has to be rescued, and he overhears his children asking themselves why their parents are even together. These scenes in the first half of the film are absolutely critical, as the unexpected tragedy that befalls Hannes is compounded by his realisation, only days earlier, that he has to start appreciating the woman who has remained by his side through good times and bad.

Unlike Amour, in which the stroke occurred very early on, Volcano‘s long setup establishes a fuller story with many failed relationships that ultimately nourishes much of the narrative in the second half. Because we understand the characters better, we are also more easily affected by their ups and down, and the sense of loss is far greater here than in Haneke’s film.

Júlíusson delivers a powerhouse performance as the cranky old man who recognises almost too late that he has missed out on life and now has to make up for his mistakes but has to do so alone. This intense loneliness is one that is felt in one of the first scenes, after Hannes has left the school for the last time (an awfully dreary goodbye occasion was thrown in his honour), when he drives home and we can spot tears in the corners of his eyes as he looks into the light of the setting sun. It is a loneliness he almost yields to when his boat takes on water and instead of doing all he can to bail the water out of the boat, he lights a cigarette and stares into the distance. But he resists the temptation to surrender, and this particular moment is a turning point that is fundamental to understanding his subsequent decision to care for his wife.

But the stroke leaves Anna in a state of near-constant, soul-crushing, slow-motion wailing, and Hannes tries to comfort her in vain because it is impossible to know whether she is trying to communicate, crying or producing sounds involuntarily as a result of the brain paralysis. In the meantime, he also has to deal with his children’s resentment over the many years during which he failed to show much interest in or enthusiasm for their development or well-being; it is to director Rúnarsson’s great credit that he successfully manages to shift our sympathies and allegiance from the children to the father during the course of the film.

Against all odds, Hannes finds strength and a sense for caring inside him that he didn’t know he had. The climax is a bit sudden and arrives without having laid any groundwork, but once it happens we fully understand why it has come to this, and the unbroken shot, bookended by a kiss, is absolutely beautiful.

The opening song is “Heyr himna smiður” (Hear, Heavenly Creator), a number whose history goes back some 800 years, and the performance by the Hallgrimskirkja’s Motett Choir is hypnotising.

Broken Blossoms (1919)

The beginnings of yellowface in the cinema are far less controversial than D.W. Griffith’s earlier Birth of a Nation, but Broken Blossoms lacks complexity and relies on main characters’ outsider status alone as the reason for them to be together. 

Broken BlossomsUSA
3.5*

Director:
D.W. Griffith

Screenwriters:
Thomas Burke

D.W. Griffith
Director of Photography:
G.W. Bitzer

Alternate title: The Yellow Man and the Girl

Running time: 90 minutes

D.W. Griffith’s depressing 1919 romantic drama Broken Blossoms may have the dubious title of being a pioneer in the use of yellowface (having white actors play Asians, most notably by grotesquely deforming their facial features), but it also arguably started the trend of creating a couple from two people who have very little in common and no obvious chemistry.

In the early 20th century, the placid Cheng Huan is moved by the “gentle message of Buddha” towards the West. An encounter with a rowdy crew of American sailors who use to their fists to solve problems horrifies the timid Cheng and reinforces his belief that the West needs the East’s positive and peaceful approach. He sets sail for London, where we find he has become an outcast who barely speaks to anybody but runs a tiny shop in the capital’s squalid Limehouse district, where, according to the film’s title cards, “the Orient squats at the portals of the West”.

Griffith, as he had done since at least The Drive for a Life in 1909, continues to deploy parallel editing on many occasions, although it this case one would be hard-pressed to say he is perfecting the approach. He focuses on the stories of the two main characters, Cheng and Lucy, whose lives are comparable to each other in their sorrow, and Griffith expects we would expect the two strands to be firmer tied together than apart.

Of course, that is a mistake too many directors still make today. The simplistic notion that people would not only gravitate towards each other but become intimately connected simply because they are outsiders is extremely silly. Cheng barely speaks to anyone. Lucy is equally timid, although she is also suffering tremendous domestic violence at the hands of the man who raised her, a perpetually drunk miscreant boxer, Battling Burrows, who takes out his general frustration with life on his adopted daughter. So, naturally, Cheng and Lucy find each other and immediately merge their souls.

Lilian Gish plays Lucy, and unlike the expressionless, dour face (naturally, framed under a conical hat) that the white Richard Barthelmess wears to portray Cheng, hers vibrates with a melancholy that is ever-present. A scene late in the film in which she locks herself in a closet out of fear for her own life and then writhes along the wall in anguish has justifiably been hailed for its visceral impact on the viewer.

A running visual theme that Gish utilises exceptionally well is the small gesture of using her fingers to push the corners of her mouth upwards, thus forcing a smile onto her “tear-aged” face. These are moments that could easily have come across as contrived but are instead conveyed with a real sense of desperation thanks to the actress’s skills as a performer.

This is supposed to be a romantic film, as the title cards inform us almost immediately after Cheng and Lucy set eyes on each other: Cheng’s loving care of the physically and mentally abused Lucy is “the first gentleness she has ever known”, and she “seems transformed – into the dark chambers of her incredulous, frightened little heart comes warmth and light.” Cheng is so taken with this creature of purity that he scoops up the moonlight falling through the window and places it worshipfully on her hair. And yet, the two of them almost never speak; as the film, despite its obvious intention to produce a romance, chooses to focus on scenes of action (sometimes irrelevant to the main couple) with Burrows the boxer.

Cheng, who hovers lasciviously over Lucy while she sleeps, makes for a rather pathetic hero, and we have little reason to empathise with him, except for him being such a tender fellow who is taken advantage of by a brutish boxer, and more generally, by Western civilisation. On this point, Griffith, who had made the racially insensitive Birth of a Nation four years earlier, is surprisingly broad-minded. In one scene, the obviously mild-mannered Cheng meets a missionary, about to set off for China to “convert the heathen”, who hands him a pamphlet on Hell, presumably because he assumes the Chinaman would require salvation from the Christian Trinity.

Fortunately, despite its one-dimensional characters and the utter simplicity of its central romance, Broken Blossoms does have at least two moments that stand out from the rest. One is a shot at the beginning of the extended climax, when Burrows discovers Lucy in Cheng’s apartment. The camera shoots his face looking straight at us, and we can just about see his nostrils flaring as the rage builds to a terrifying crescendo. Although there was never any risk that the viewer would be empathising with the villain, this momentary re-positioning of the viewer is clever and comparable to (though better executed than) the final shot of The Great Train Robbery.

The other moment worth considering is the complex morality at the end of the film. Here, the story seems to come full circle, as Cheng’s ineffective approach to the pugilist sailors at the beginning of the film comes back to haunt him, and either he has been consumed by the barbarity of the Anglo-Saxons he had believed he would be able to save, or he has decided to solve his problems in a different, albeit equally futile, way.

Although Broken Blossoms will be remembered for its mainstream normalisation of the practice of yellowface (even though the film opened pre–Hays Code, which prohibited the depiction of miscegenation), in terms of morality the film is a vast improvement over Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Daydreams and a little push finally get one man out of his comfort zone, taking him on a wild and ever more fantastical journey from the Big Apple to Iceland to the foothills of the Himalayas in north-eastern Afghanistan.

The Secret Life of Walter MittyUSA
3.5*

Director:
Ben Stiller

Screenwriter:
Steve Conrad

Director of Photography:
Stuart Dryburgh

Running time: 115 minutes

There is always fun to be had whenever Ben Stiller steps behind the camera. From Zoolander to Tropic Thunder, his characters have been memorable in a way very few others have managed: They are oddballs, but even though they don’t arouse much sympathy, they stick with us.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is slightly different, because it is less inclined towards entertaining us and more towards thrilling us with the notion that it’s never too late to be adventurous, and that there is a Magellan inside all of us. The level of storytelling isn’t elevated far above Stiller’s previous pictures, but despite its flaws, it is certainly more mature.

The film is the second attempt at bringing James Thurber’s original 2,000-word story from 1939 to the big screen. The short story had little going for it: Basically, Walter Mitty drove his wife to the hairdresser, picked up “overshoes” because she had told him to, bought dog biscuits and then picked her up again, all while daydreaming about adventures in alternating paragraphs.

The first director to try his hand at the story was Norman McLeod, but the film he produced, released in 1947, is filled with an embarrassingly weak central character who faces farcical situations at home, while his many alter egos takes on life and death in his fantasies.

Stiller’s film is certainly an improvement on that, because the daydreams that pepper the opening act – and they do unfortunately become tedious to the extent that we no longer care what happens, since we know it is merely a temporary digression from reality – eventually morph into adventure in Walter Mitty’s (Stiller) own life, when he jumps from a helicopter into shark-infested waters off the coast of Greenland, skates down a long and winding road in the Icelandic countryside while a volcano erupts close by, and climbs a mountain in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush where he spots the elusive snow leopard.

But let’s back up for a second – there are a few interlocking parts to this plot.

The reason Mitty embarks on the journey of a lifetime is because he is after the missing negative of a photo that is supposed to be the final cover of LIFE Magazine, where he works as the negative asset manager. The company’s product is about to be turned into a digital-only publication, and personnel cuts are imminent, but he has his eye on co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), who has only just started working there.

With only three other photos as clues – one of someone’s finger, the other of a body of water with the word “Erkigsnek”, and the last of what looks like a piece of wood – he sets off on a mission to find the magazine’s nomadic photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), who was last seen somewhere close to the capital of Greenland.

It is not always clear how Mitty manages to follow O’Connell’s trail, but he is constantly on the move, being pushed ever onward by visions of Cheryl telling him to go while channelling David Bowie. And we certainly feel privileged to experience this rush of adrenaline along with him. Although it is obvious from the first moment we see Greenland that the scenes here were actually shot on Iceland, the scenes on the Northern Hemisphere’s largest island do provide a magical moment when Mitty, once again lost in thought, realises the opportunity to escape from a life of absolute safety and monotony is upon him, and he catches the flight to a destination unknown.

The scenes on these two islands are stunning and filled with unusual characters (a drunk helicopter pilot played by the powerhouse Icelandic actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson is a particular thrill) and extraordinary situations, including the eruption of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull.

Unfortunately, the scenery and the events make us question the necessity of the action set in New York City, either at the office or out and about with Cheryl, who is clearly fond of Mitty, but having recently separated from her husband, she seems to be hesitant to jump right back into the waters of the dating world.

But perhaps that was the point all along: The real world sucks, and that is why Mitty chooses to daydream. New York City is also the scene of family drama, and thanks to his chirpy mother (Shirley MacLaine) we learn the obstacle to him embracing his wild side was the death of his father, which left the family without money and forced him to start work when he was a teenager. This back story easily explains why Steven Spielberg had toyed with the idea of directing the film back in 2003.

Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has a Spike Jonze quality to it, especially as imagination and reality often flow into each other, and the imagery of water or ripples found throughout is very fitting, beautifully captured by director of photography Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano).

There are odd digressions, including a wholly unbefitting homage to (or spoof of, depending on your perspective) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and it is a bit of a surprise to find Mitty leaving on a flight into so-called “Ungoverned Afghanistan” at the drop of a hat without so much as applying for a visa. Even the final revelation just before the closing credits, which is absolutely picture-perfect, lacks a greater punch because it doesn’t have much of a foundation to support it, and despite the film’s best efforts at touching us, it feels like a missed opportunity.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty takes us on a wonderful ride through exquisite locations, but while the screenplay breathes life into the short story, it only hints at a well of emotions that are never explored and, sadly for us, remain a secret part of the life of Walter Mitty.

Fury (2014)

David Ayer’s Second World War film has a dose of the infernal as it shows what has usually gone unsaid: good guys also have to kill.

fury-david-ayerUSA
3.5*

Director:
David Ayer

Screenwriter:
David Ayer

Director of Photography:
Roman Vasyanov

Running time: 135 minutes

When the Allied forces disembarked on the shores of Normandy, Dante’s famous sign at the gates of hell should have informed them what they were up against: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Of course, in the end, they prevailed against Hitler, Mussolini and their troops, and the heroism of the soldiers and their actions during the Second World War still make grown men cry. But as much as war is about conquest and defeat, the fights that have to be fought lead to death, and it is not only when you have killed hundreds or even dozens of people that you change, but when you have killed a single one.

Every time there is a war, this realisation has to dawn on soldiers, and the moment when war becomes real is when you aim your pistol and pull the trigger at someone whose ideology differs from yours but who has not tried to kill you. In David Ayer’s Fury, war is a painfully miserable experience for the viewer, because it so clearly turns people into bloodthirsty animals, often against their will. It tells the story of five men, huddled inside a tank named “Fury”, who do their best to survive, despite the odds, as they proceed across the German countryside and make their way towards Berlin in the waning days of the war.

Despite the green fields, sometimes decked with light snow, we get the impression throughout that the U.S. troops are crossing the valley of the shadow of death, and there is indeed evil to fear, because anything from a landmine to a brush-covered sniper can flip someone’s life switch in a matter of seconds. In the dark but meaningful opening scene, we get a very good sense of just how fragile life can be.

The film’s opening scene goes from ominous to gory to utterly bleak as someone we can’t see approaches on horseback, only to be stabbed through the eye, the blade presumably sinking deep into the skull, and dying instantly. The guy who did the stabbing is played by Brad Pitt, and he is in charge of a band of brothers during the Second World War who want to kill as many Nazis as they can as fast as they can so that they can go home and forget about all the people they killed. It is a vicious circle from which they can’t escape.

That opener, in which we are utterly unsure at first whether to cheer for the stabber or feel bad for the stabbee, shows this violence between individuals we don’t know, and who in all likelihood don’t know each other. It is a kind of violence of which this film is powerful but ultimately a pale representation of the large-scale moral carnage that occurs during wartime.

The main meat of the story does not involve the five soldiers as much as it focuses on the very quick growing up the newest addition to the group, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), has to do not. Not only does he have to stand his man and fit in but also survive in this environment of threats that are as constant as they are imminent.

Besides Pitt’s Sergeant Collier, the others in the group are as varied as one can expect: There is the silent, serious and very subdued Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), who cites Scripture when need be, and these guys need it very often; the hedonist Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) who has clearly been fighting too long; and the Spanish-speaking Trini “Gordo” García (Michael Peña).

Ellison goes through the predictable trajectory from refusing to shoot anyone (before his transfer to the battlefield, he used to be a clerk, and he prides himself on typing 60 words per minute) to shooting like his life depended on it, and often it does, earning him the nom de guerre “[killing] Machine”.

But it is not all moonlight and roses, and Ayer takes pains to point out the moral minefield these characters have to navigate as they commit atrocious acts so that good may triumph in the end. At one point, we realise even Sergeant Collier might not be above taking an innocent German girl by force if given half a chance.

Because of his age, his lack of experience and his much less violent worldview, Ellison does not seem to fit in with these men, and neither does the audience, but over time we get to see the humanity in each of the characters, albeit often buried beneath a layer of denial for the sake of survival.

The film itself is an odd creature: While the characters get a somber dose of humanity and texture, the story is aimless, and there is no clear goal. We know the war is winding down, but by the end of the film, we are still stuck somewhere in the German countryside with only tiny triumphs and defeats having been racked up along the way, including an unforgettable scene that involves the Nazis’ feared Tiger tank.

The acting is superb, and it is particularly inspiring to see the greatness that lies within LaBeouf when he represses his emotions. But despite its historical accuracy, the “tracers” that light up one battle scene are more reminiscent of a Star Wars battle, complete with what looks like green and red lasers on the battlefield, than a 1945 shoot-out in the real world. Ayer should have found another way to make this scene palatable to an audience not at all used to such visuals in a realistic setting.

While the story may be thin, we leave the cinema utterly drained because of an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion and a realisation that even the good guys do terrible things so that their side can win. Soldiers are human, and in situations as primal as warfare, they are reduced to their most basic instincts, and for all the honour and glory we bestow on them when they return home, many of us probably would not want to know what they did so that the rest of us may carry on.

The Feast of Stephen (2009)

James Franco applies the language of cinema to adapt an Anthony Hecht poem and produces a work of sexual intensity that nicely dovetails with the films of dedicatee Kenneth Anger.

The Feast of StephenUSA
3.5*

Director:
James Franco

Screenwriter:
James Franco

Director of Photography:
Christina Voros

Running time: 266 seconds

James Franco’s The Feast of Stephen, a five-minute short film adapted from the eponymous poem by Anthony Hecht, is about sex, violence, violence as sex and sex as violence. Its ambiguous depiction of homoeroticism makes it difficult to determine whether or not it is a fantasy woven from reality, although the director overplays his hand in the second half with an unnecessarily literal portrayal of what was already quite apparent in the first half.

This wordless black-and-white short dedicated to experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger has something in common with one of the director’s earliest films, Fireworks, released more than 60 years earlier in 1947. Anger’s film was about a teenager (played by Anger himself) who goes in search of “relief” and finds it after wading through some sadomasochism. Like Fireworks, Franco’s film touches on the issue of shame and violence but also, eventually, sexual gratification, albeit tinged with violence and scatology, but luckily The Feast of Stephen takes a more serious tack and eschews the camp so often visible in Anger’s oeuvre, as Franco spares us the sight of milk-covered flesh.

The film opens on a basketball court, where four teenage boys – two of them shirtless – are passing the ball and shooting hoops. Along the fence comes a boy, the titular Stephen, wearing long trousers, a long-sleeved T-shirt and glasses – clearly, at odds with the rest of the group. Stephen stares at them, and something they look back at him, straight into the camera. He stares at them, and they start moving in slow motion, their youthful torsos rippling in the afternoon sun. He stares at them and notices how their hands playfully touch each other’s taut bodies. Suddenly, his desire is made manifest by more carnal images of the boys’ genitals. Now, Stephen is staring even more intently, and when one of them looks back, and the camera rushes towards him, it is clear Stephen has been caught out. He bolts off, his secret now out in the open, but the violence that ensues when the quartet of boys catch up to him also makes his innermost thoughts a reality.

The pounding that he gets all over his body, experienced most acutely in his groin, gradually becomes a pounding from behind. At this point, the implication is clear, but this is also the moment at which Franco goes too far in order to emphasise beyond a shadow of a doubt that this act of violence has a strong sexual undertone, as a cut suddenly removes all clothing, and we see Stephen being penetrated by the boys over whom he’d been tripping out. Of course, this moment is as imagined as the earlier moment of nudity that had briefly revealed the boys on court in the buff, and perhaps this prior image forms a sturdy means of support for the later scene, although both intellectually and emotionally it would have benefited from much tighter editing during the sodomy scene.

Despite its last-minute overreach, The Feast of Stephen is a seriously executed film that is thoroughly enjoyable and – unlike many of Franco’s other works – never overstays its welcome. The camera work has a grittiness that fits its subject very well, and while the lead actor comes across as more of a blank canvas than an actual character, the players’ movements are all beautifully coordinated. The film doesn’t have the grace or the sensuality of, say, Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour, but the brutality wrapped in fantasy makes for two easily accessible levels on which to process the events, and in a film less than five minutes long, that is not bad at all.

Ex Machina (2015)

Scribe of The Beach turns director and produces a dazzling, thought-provoking science-fiction film about artificial intelligence.

Ex MachinaUK
4.5*

Director:
Alex Garland

Screenwriter:
Alex Garland

Director of Photography:
Rob Hardy

Running time: 110 minutes

Not since the one-two of Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca in 1997 and Alex Proyas’s Dark City in 1998 has a big-budget, big-return film posited the kind of highly credible near future that obliges us to confront the philosophical dilemmas raised by technological advances that we find in Alex Garland’s stunning directorial début, Ex Machina.

The tale is set in a world in which the search engine “BlueBook” (the name is arguably the least creative aspect of the entire screenplay), the fictional equivalent of Google, collects and processes the data from everyone around the world with access to a communication device. The reason for this is that the head of the company – a reclusive 30-something named Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who is a prodigiously gifted programmer and wrote the base code for BlueBook at the age of 13 – wants to take human civilisation to the next level. His goal is to use all of this data to construct a creature with artificial intelligence (AI), the likes of which would be indistinguishable from an organically evolved human being.

To his credit, Garland, perhaps best-known for writing the novel The Beach, does not burden his story with theory or philosophical digressions. He uses a very small cast, centres the action in a single location for almost the entirety of the film and provides minimal but distinct signposts to track the development of the drama. His storytelling proficiency is most discernible in his use of small parables that distil the essence of the dynamics at play.

There is no big setup. The opening shots quickly convey a clinical office space full of glass – that alienating material that is both allows us to see through it but separates us from that which we see – and within a few seconds, the camera settles on a closeup of a pale, blond programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). He receives a flickering message on his screen informing him he has won the first prize, and his colleagues flock to his desk to congratulate him. The prize is a visit to Nathan on his estate, which includes glaciers, mountains and a forest. The house itself is a curious mixture of the natural and the artificial, as it is built into rock but contains an immense array of technological devices that Nathan uses to protect himself from the outside world, and perhaps even from the others inside his house.

Caleb learns that he was selected to help Nathan perform a Turing test, which establishes whether someone can tell that a creature has AI and is not organic. The test subject looks half-machine, half-human and is called Ava. It might be a coincidence that the initials of the actress playing the part, Alicia Vikander, are AV, which also make up more than half the name of the character, but perhaps not. Of course, the first woman on earth, at least according to mythology, had a similar name: “Eve”.

But from the very first moment we meet him, we sense that there is something wrong with Nathan. He comes across as a guy who is comfortable in his own skin but trying a little too hard to be friends with Caleb, an employee in his company. He always walks around barefoot, makes flippant comments about his own role in the advancement of humanity and misquotes Caleb as saying he is a god. Something is not quite right, but we can’t put our finger on it, and Isaac is absolutely mesmerising in the role of a physically intimidating (at least, compared with Gleeson) individual who also has the dominant position in the power relationship and is a little unstable.

The controversial, highly topical issue of the mass collection of data by institutions ranging from governments around the world to search companies like Google is only obliquely addressed, but those who follow the news will not fail to notice it. In this case, the invasion of privacy is shocking but does not dominate the narrative in any way. Instead, it serves to underscore how embedded such actions have become in the information and communication industry.

Ex Machina develops at a gradual pace, with chapters marked out onscreen by title cards that merely display the number of the session between Caleb and Ava, which also correlates with the days he spends carrying out the test. Garland shows a remarkably firm hand with his narrative as he gently shifts the power dynamics, never deviates from his story and never loses our interest. It was a very clever move to have Ava remain a marginal character almost throughout, as her importance is deceptively minimised, and despite our concern for her well-being, we side with the men. Isaac (and Caleb, to a lesser extent) considers her to be little more than a machine, even though both of them are fully aware that she is in some way, primarily because of her exterior appearance, less than human.

Garland’s film is dazzling, and while this is a much more commercial approach to philosophical questions of existence than, say, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, its chilling resolution will spark debate about the future of mankind and the possibility of peaceful existence with machines that are just like us. Hubris should not get the better of man when he has managed to be a creator like God. Man may have his reasons, but humanoid machines will, too, and that is essential to keep in mind.

Jimmy’s Hall (2014)

True story of Irish hero James Grafton, who fought for independence from those colonising his land and thoughts, shows the sickening power of the Church in Depression-era Ireland.

jimmy's hallUK/Ireland
3*

Director:
Ken Loach

Screenwriter:
Paul Laverty

Director of Photography:
Robbie Ryan

Running time: 110 minutes

Although independence is usually cause for celebration, attaining it from a colonial power is often just one struggle waged and won among others, many of which still have to be achieved. To some extent this was also true of the nation of Ireland: Following the at times very bloody Irish War of Independence of 1919–21, the heavily religious population enabled the Catholic Church to play a significant role in the administration of the country, which at times resembled a theocratic fiefdom rather than a fully fledged democratic system.

The infamous case of James “Jimmy” Gralton dates to the early days of the independent Republic of Ireland. Gralton had grown up in County Leitrim in the north of the country, just south of what would become the border with Northern Ireland after the War of Independence. He emigrated to the United States as a young man, returned to fight for his country’s freedom, and subsequently opened a dance hall in his small town, an event that the conservative church found reprehensible, and he eventually had to flee back to New York City when it seemed clear he would be thrown in jail.

After the boom and bust of the 1920s, at the height of the Great Depression, Gralton (Barry Ward) returned to his homeland in 1932. He reconnects with many people from a decade earlier who encourage him to re-open the centre for music, entertainment, learning and art that once carried his name. He decides to listen and even introduces them to jazz, but the Church, in the form of Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), takes matters into its own hands, ultimately leading to unprecedented action against the man who just wanted his fellow villagers to forget their troubles and be happy.

For those unfamiliar with Gralton’s story, the context is provided in two ways at the outset, although there will surely be details, like the name of the hall (Pearse-Connolly, in reference to two of the most famous casualties of the war), that slip past unnoticed. Along with the serene opening scene, set on a horse with cart in the beautiful Irish countryside, the viewer gets numerous supertitles that sketch the political environment of the time and explain the simmering tensions between the loyalists and the Republicans, although a new, slightly less right-wing party came to power in the early 1930s and filled some with optimism.

In the first few scenes, there is also a smattering of flashbacks to the early 1920s, during the heyday of the dance hall that became the thing of legend to those who had reached their teens by the time of Gralton’s return. However, these flashbacks are elegantly preceded by just the right amount of sparse hints in the dialogue about Gralton’s history, and especially his feud with fellow townsman Commander O’Keefe (Brían F. O’Byrne), to set the scene without filling in all the blanks.

“Scars on the heart … take a long time to heal”, says Father Sheridan, speaking as much about others as about himself, and this single phrase sufficiently illuminates the collision course on which he and Gralton find themselves, although the ever-present fear of communism, and of course of losing control, also animates him greatly. The fear is far from irrational, although his reaction to it paints him as a man out to be vengeful and even authoritarian. As is so often the case, in films from The Magdalene Sisters to Philomena, the Church’s callous pursuit of power is best demonstrated through its brutal disregard for the well-being of children, and some of the most powerful scenes in Jimmy’s Hall feature the adults of tomorrow.

Even to those who don’t know anything about this particular episode, or about this period in Irish history more generally, the story may seem slightly predictable at turns. However, it is to the credit of longtime filmmaker Ken Loach that he never dwells on sentimentality too long and provides us with dialogue scenes that are heavy with words but also compelling character development. The character of the priest has to be mentioned here, as his initial black-and-white view of the world becomes slightly more shaded towards the end, making him a far more complex character than we expect, even while his repulsively unsympathetic behaviour remains.

The major issue at the heart of the story, at least from the Church’s point of view, is whether Gralton is about to embark on a campaign of brainwashing that would turn people into crimson-red communists who will follow him, the Irish Pied Piper, away to the Hamelin of a Marxist dreamland. Father Sheridan phrases the alleged attacks on Irish tradition slightly differently, by talking about the “Los Angelisation of our culture”, and he tells his church-goers that they face a fundamental choice: “Is it Christ? Or is it Gralton?”

By demonising Gralton as the Antichrist, he succeeds not only in tarring him with the brush of evil but also in striking fear in the hearts of his congregants, many of whom may not know better than to put blind trust in the words of their all-too-human priest. The consequences are tragic, but Loach is also an inspirational filmmaker who shows us how Gralton’s stay in Ireland seemed to have changed people for the better.

Although this film was widely considered to be the last by the veteran filmmaker, who at the time of release was in his late 70s and had been making films for more than 45 years (his sophomore production, Kes, released in 1969, often ranks near the top of lists of the best British films ever made), his subsequent film, I, Daniel Blake, would go on to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival just two years later, in 2016. 

A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s prelude to his award-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives offers very little but looks exquisite and does hint at a deeper meaning.

letter-uncle-boonmeeThailand/UK
3*

Director:
Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Screenwriter:
Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Director of Photography:
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom

Running time: 17 minutes

Original title: จดหมาย ถึงลุงบุญมี
Transliterated title: Cdh̄māy t̄hụng loong buỵ mī

For the sake of clarity, this review refers to Apichatpong Weerasethakul as the film’s “director” while using the term “filmmaker” to point to the anonymous diegetic individual/s who is/are allegedly making the film in front of our eyes.

Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s short film A Letter to Uncle Boonmee – a trial run  for what would eventually become his Palme d’Or–winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives – eludes explanation to the uninitiated viewer and eschews plot in favour of feeling, which is always a gamble. However, while Weerasethakul does give us a bit more to chew on, it is only in the short film’s closing credits that we get a firm indication of the theme that we were witness to.

The images in A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, all linked to the small town of Nabua, are without a main character. Except for what appears to be an ape-like apparition lurking in the forest, there is only a single individual whose face we clearly see, and he never speaks nor does anything of note – in fact, he barely moves at all, and we certainly don’t know his name nor function in the story. But the director does give a subtle hint, as the man, like all of the handful of other characters we see in the film, wears a military uniform, a feature that is given some weight by a voice-over that recalls how “soldiers once occupied this place” and that they “killed and tortured the villagers and forced them to flee to the jungle”. The many portraits we see on the walls inside the cottage presumably pictures of these villagers.

Furthermore, the closing credits are immediately preceded by a black screen carrying the following dedication, which briefly contextualise the action, albeit with extreme hesitation: “For Uncle Boonmee Srigulwong, who remained in northeastern Thailand for his past reincarnations, and for the residents of the village of Nabua who were forced to leave their homes.”

The film starts by repeating the words in the titular letter to the filmmaker’s uncle Boonmee. However, “filmmaker” is a very slippery term here, because neither of the two (different!) voices that speak the letter via voice-over belongs to Weerasethakul. The fact that the two voices audibly do not belong to the same individual is emblematic of the director’s approach to his story, which relishes the mixture of reality and fiction that is apparent at every turn.

In the short letter, reproduced below, the filmmaker talks about the film we are watching and how it likely fails to accurately depict the reality of his uncle’s living conditions. The making of the film is supported by off-screen dialogue later on about the wording of the letter itself, and we get a very modernist breaking of the fourth wall when we see someone swing the matte box away in order to change a lens and thus allow us to “see things more clearly”.

Uncle,
I have been here for a while. I want to see a movie about your life. So I proposed a project about your reincarnations. In my script, your house is in a longan farm surrounded by mountains. But here there are endless plains and rice fields.
Last week, I met a man I thought was your son. He works at the auto garage. But after talking to him, I thought he was your nephew because his father was a policeman who owned hundreds of cows. Judging from your book, I don’t think you owned a lot of cows. And you were a teacher, weren’t you? The man was old. He couldn’t remember his father’s name very well. Might have been Boonmee or Boonma. He said it was a long time ago.
Here in Nabua, there are several houses well-suited for this short film for which I got funding from England. I don’t know what your house looked like. I can’t use the one in my script since it is so different from the ones here. Maybe some parts of these houses would resemble yours.

These words play out on the soundtrack while we watch the camera gracefully track through the empty cottages, devoid of any life but vibrating with absence as we see room after room with bedding on the floor and portraits on the walls. There is a beautiful transition when the last tracking shot eventually opens onto a full-frame view of a golden sunset in the distance beyond the lush greenery in the foreground. This moment is accompanied by a question as to whether Uncle Boonmee had a different view from his own home compared with the one we see in front of us.

The uncertainty, which extends to the identity of the subject himself, is clear as day in this letter, but it is interesting to note that even though the filmmaker, whoever he is, is addressing this letter to someone who is likely already dead, and he is not sure that the final product will reflect his uncle’s reality, he is confident that his uncle has indeed had multiple lives thanks to reincarnation. Perhaps that explains the bizarre egg-shaped object in the garden, which puffs out thick plumes of smoke from inside itself throughout the film without any explanation.

The end of the film includes the abrupt and unexplained appearance of the hairy creature, which might also be the thing or person barely perceptible behind a thin pink curtain in the cottage on two occasions in the film. However, things move very quickly, and then, suddenly, the story is over, if it ever really started.

A Letter to Uncle Boonmee feels disjointed, reaching for mostly uninformative bits of voice-over to compensate for – or perhaps to attempt to mask – the lack of substance. The visuals pique our interest, but the ending will leave most filmgoers (certainly those who haven’t seen the subsequent feature film) scratching their heads and ultimately sinks what comes before.

Begin the Beguine (1982)

A slow-moving but heartwarming tale of a Nobel Prize–winning author’s return to the country of his youth is little more than a music video for Pachelbel’s “Canon”.

begin-the-beguineSpain
3*

Director:
José Luis Garci
Screenwriters:
José Luis Garci

Angel Llorente
Director of Photography:
Manuel Rojas

Running time: 85 minutes

Original title: Volver a empezar

The first few minutes of José Luis Garci’s Begin the Beguine tell us everything we need to know without using so much as a single word. A train arrives in the Asturian city of Gijón on Spain’s northern coast. An elderly gentleman gets off the train, but before checking into his hotel, he visits a downtown movie house called the Robledo, walks along the harbour where tiny fishing boats bob on the water, and then, at a football stadium, the sight of a chalk line beneath his shoe makes him visibly nostalgic, as do the cranes in the distance, symbols of development and the passage of time. We don’t know anything about this man, but we know this is the home of his youth, where he played football and went to the cinema, and we know this film will be about him catching up with the past.

Unfortunately, the catching up is as shallow as Johann Pachelbel’s recurring “Canon” (as well as Cole Porter’s titular ditty) on the soundtrack is repetitive. But the man at the centre, who wears a smile that tells us he doesn’t take anything too seriously, because wisdom or experience or merely the years he has spent on this Earth have taught him better, keeps our attention and connects with our hearts even when our heads tell us this is too simple a tale.

The man is Antonio Miguel Albajara, a native of Gijón who left because of Franco before moving to the United States and eventually ended up settling in San Francisco and teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. We later learn that he has just received the Nobel Prize for Literature and has made this detour on his way back home from the ceremony in Stockholm. Ostensibly, the reason for the detour is not so much to see the city of his youth as it is to see the girl of his youth, Elena. What happens between them, however, is nothing more than scene after scene of reminiscing, and the emotional connection remains superficial at best. Perhaps all the more so because of a secret that is withheld.

This secret is the real reason for Albajara’s return to Gijón, and it has to do with him knowing this will be the last chance for him to see the city and the streets he wrote about in his novels, and above all to relive the romance of his youth with Elena. To protect Elena from devastating news, he keeps the secret of his imminent release from the bonds of existence to himself and chooses instead to make the reunion one of blissful ignorance, as much for Elena’s as for his own sake. This decision, understandable though it may be, is not probed in any detail and ultimately remains firmly in the background. This would have been perfectly acceptable if the foreground had been interesting on its own merits, but that is not the case.

In the foreground, our attention is often directed to Losado, the buffoonish yet well-meaning manager of the hotel where Albajara is staying. It feels like every scene with him belongs in a different film, because the overacting is at times unbearable and does damage to the sincerity and the authenticity we would like to ascribe to Albajara’s interactions.

We learn that Albajara forsook not only his girlfriend but also a promising career as one of the best midfielders the town had ever seen, not to forget his best friend, “Redhead” (Roxu), with whom he shares a beautiful, tender scene in the middle of the film. Unfortunately, none of these events is treated with the seriousness or gets the elaboration they deserve.

The camera also has some peculiar, often downright amateurish moments to indicate loss: At two points in the film, the camera dollies either up or down to reveal Albajara sitting among a vast array of empty chairs – presumably to indicate that he is alone, or that the people around him have died or that the life he once had is no more.

And yet, despite its many faults, including a failure to ask how Albajara’s memory of Elena stacks up against his experience in the presence, Begin the Beguine is full of warmth and thoroughly likeable. The primary reason for this is the quiet, subdued performance of Antonio Ferrandis in the lead, playing the character as a wise old man who has made peace with the world and is now also making peace with the past before he faces an uncertain future. Another reason is a wonderful scene in which the writer speaks to King Juan Carlos I on the phone.

But Pachelbel permeates the soundtrack as much as “Lara’s Theme” overpowered Dr. Zhivago, and ultimately we cannot help but think of the film as visual accompaniment to the music, instead of the other way around. During a final encounter at the airport, “Greensleeves” pops up in the background, and even though the connection is self-evident to the point of being simplistic, it is a joy to hear something else on the audio track for a change.

Begin the Beguine is a very shallow depiction of a key moment in the last year of a man’s life, but the central premise and performance are strong enough to carry it through its relatively short running time, and the film has to be commended for refusing to use flashbacks.