Arrival (2016)

Arrival makes its mark with an ingenious use of the concept of time and a curious portrayal of aliens, but the soppiness of a central relationship is this work’s major flaw.

Arrival3.5*
USA

Director:
Denis Villeneuve

Screenwriter:
Eric Heisserer

Director of Photography:
Bradford Young

Running time: 115 minutes

Despite its ever more sentimental bent and its simplistic good guy/bad guy dynamics, Denis Villeneuve’s science-fiction film Arrival is a cleverly constructed tale of first contact between humans and aliens and has a satisfying twist at its core.

The twist has to do with time, and more specifically with viewing events not in bits and pieces advancing from A to B to C, from one day to the next, but as an all-encompassing whole seen all at once. In this way, the domino effect is no longer at play, and cause and effect disappear into a new space-time continuum that until now had been illustrated the best by the “Cause and Effect” episode of the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series, which depicts the shaping of the present thanks to future events being anticipated through contact with the past.

The film’s emotion-laden opening sequence, which introduces us to single mother and renowned linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), quickly moves from one beat to the next as her baby daughter grows up and turns into a teenager before suddenly falling ill and dying of a rare illness. This episode is firmly in our heads not only because it kicks the narrative into gear but also because Villeneuve returns to it again and again and again throughout the rest of the film. But while Banks’s recollection of these moments is perceived as melancholy memories, something else is happening, and we have to recalibrate our sense of time in a clever way.

The idea of viewing a story – never mind one’s own life – as a whole rather than in its constituent parts is an intimidating proposition, but such an approach is central to communication (and action) in Arrival, because the aliens that arrive in their gigantic grey shell-shaped pods and touch down in a desolate expanse of land in Montana communicate in precisely this way.

Their signs consist not of distinct words but of circular signs that convey a complete overview of both meaning and feeling and can range from the basic to the hypercomplex. And for Banks to understand their message, her brain needs to start thinking about life in such a way, too, affirming the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis that language also transforms our perception of life itself. Thus, by acquiring a language that sees the beginning and the end rolled up into one, she starts seeing her own life that way as well, including events she is yet to experience.

Of course, she needs a foil in the shape of research partner and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Renner’s part is woefully underdeveloped, however. Beyond wanting to jump straight into asking the aliens about Fibonacci numbers without understanding that mathematics is not a particularly useful language for basic communication, he appears not to do all that much except support Banks on her surprisingly successful English as a Foreign Intergalactic Language course with the aliens. These two are sent by the government to ascertain the purpose of the visit by the aliens, which have landed at 12 spots on the globe but remained hidden inside their shell-shaped spacecrafts.

Villeneuve, whose film has traces of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, particularly in the scoring by master composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, with whom he also collaborated on Sicario, uses Steven Spielberg’s well-known technique (from Close Encounters but most famously from Jaws) of delaying a major introduction. The aliens themselves (which, unlike in most other films, are not particularly anthropoid but look very much like the spider in Villeneuve’s Enemy, albeit with seven instead of eight legs, thus earning them the label “heptapods”) are almost never completely visible.

But more generally, the director does not do justice to the intelligence of his story. He beats the relationship between Banks and her daughter to death with too many inserts while failing to convey Banks’s perception of the frequency of these images. But with the exception of a life-changing, humanity-saving flash-forward in the final act, an exception that proves the rule, he doesn’t cast his net any farther to provide other interesting examples of using consciousness about time past, present and future in an unexpected way.

Villeneuve, who captured the suspense in Sicario so well, is surprisingly inept when it comes to creating tension, and he creates a Hunt for Red October moment by having the camera point straight at a team member who will betray them all. And he does this not once but multiple times. In fact, it is much more blatant than the infamous introduction to the cook (later revealed to be a traitor) in John McTiernan’s 1990 film.

The film has some beautiful moments, including the already mentioned flash forward during the climax, as well as a voiceover delivered by Renner to explain the heptapods, much like he is narrating a documentary about them years into the future. But its presentation of the global collaboration and suspicion between the groups trying to investigate the aliens is incredibly stilted, and when we hear that the Sudan is planning to attack the aliens, it is difficult not to burst out laughing.

The sentimentality in Arrival may be a bit much to stomach, and there are simply too many inserts with Banks and her daughter, but the flexibility of time and the way in which it is made visible in the film bring us another perspective that might just trickle down into other science-fiction films in the future.

Sicario (2015)

Sicario, Denis Villeneuve’s sweeping view of war on drugs, focuses on the law enforcement officials crossing the border.

sicario4*
USA

Director:
Denis Villeneuve

Screenwriter:
Taylor Sheridan

Director of Photography:
Roger Deakins

Running time: 120 minutes

The United Status–Mexico border may appear to separate the two most populous nations in North America, but in fact, as we know, the length of the border and the rough terrain make it difficult to control, and for decades there has been a northward movement of people and drugs. In Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve does not tell the tale of those crossing the border, as this has been done often enough, but instead focuses on the moral wasteland that the government’s fight against the drug-induced violence has become.

The opening scene is intense. In Arizona, in a small town just a few miles from the border, a federal team of agents is moving in. They ram their truck into a flimsy suburban home and return the fire they receive from the wife beater–clad gentlemen inside. At first, there is no sign of the hostages they had been tipped off about. But upon closer inspection of the property, they find the walls are hollow and stuffed with dozens of corpses whose heads are all covered in plastic bags. The scene is gruesome, and most of the hardened men and women of the team retch at the sight and the smell. Moments later, a bomb goes off, and we witness at least one team member losing a limb.

One of those involved in the raid is Kate Mercer (a stunningly composed Emily Blunt), who is intent on rooting out the drug problem and agrees to work with Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a Defense Department adviser who heads up a Delta Force team to get those who are responsible for the first scene’s carnage. The team is accompanied by Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), an unflappable and enigmatic Colombian whose intentions are opaque but who brings unmistakable expertise to the operation.

There are many revelations throughout the film, as we realise time and again that the U.S. government engages in all kinds of undercover and even unlawful activities in order to reduce the general level of criminality, and they do so in a way that would make Machiavelli proud. For those who have not seen the film, it would not be too much of a spoiler to disclose that the U.S. team does not limit its activities to its own territory, and the notorious border town of Ciudad Juárez is the location of one of the film’s dramatic highlights.

In that particular scene, Villeneuve demonstrates his talent for building and maintaining tension, for keeping the audience on the edge of their seats thanks to a threat that seems to be both ever-present and covert, and for using his camera to produce images that are breathtaking yet entirely relevant.

For example, there are a few amazing fly-over shots from high up in the air that show us the congested lanes on the Bridge of the Americas, the port of entry between the United States and Mexico. The sequence in Ciudad Juárez is bookended by shots on the bridge, and at first, the U.S. team races unobstructed across the bridge in their big black Humvees. When they return, there is much more congestion, and the heavy traffic is not only an inconvenience but a security threat. At the same time, the shots from the air convey the feeling of a disembodied menace (it is not connected to a helicopter, for example) that might as well be a Predator drone – the kind that the U.S. government uses to patrol the border.

But in the background, beyond the blood and the action, there is the eerie indifference among the thousands of passengers crammed into the hundreds of cars passing the still-bleeding corpses without so much as a shocked expression. In this part of the world, even the slaying of two handfuls of people in broad daylight does not elicit the turn of a head or a soft gasp of breath. All the while, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s throbbing, menacing and absolutely riveting score pumps our blood faster and faster.

Sicario, which means “hitman” in Mexico, is a film whose overwhelming sense of dread is difficult to shake, even many days after the viewer has left the theater. While the drama is elegantly directed and flawlessly put together and the narrative is always crystal clear, the overall feeling is one of never-ending chaos, and that early scene in and around Ciudad Juárez greatly contributes to this impression.

Villeneuve’s film is scary and profound. It focuses on a small group of people representing larger forces we only get a glimpse of, but these snippets of the battle against drugs is enough to make us understand there is no easy answer, and that eventually everyone loses in this fight.

Mellow Mud (2016)

Mellow Mud, a confidently directed coming-of-age tale set in Latvia is notable for its storytelling, but above all it is the presence and poise of its lead actress, Elīna Vaska, that will stay with the viewer.

Mellow Mud4*
Latvia

Director:
Renārs Vimba

Screenwriter:
Renārs Vimba

Director of Photography:
Arnar Þór Þórisson

Running time: 105 minutes

Original title: Es esmu šeit

The only thing better than breaking the rules is having an accomplice to do that. Mellow Mud, a film set in the Latvian outback, is in many ways a conventional coming-of-age story about two school-age siblings who are left to be raised by their unwilling grandmother when their mother emigrates to London. However, the rules they break to cope with their situation are not only understandable but wholly relatable, even while the possibility they might be found out hangs over them like the Sword of Damocles for the duration of the film.

The central character is the elder sister, Raja Kalniņa (an absolutely flawless portrayal by Elīna Vaska), who in her final year of high school suddenly has the responsibility of taking care of her young brother, Robis (Andžejs Jānis Lilientāls), when their mother leaves, their father has died, and their grandmother and guardian, Olga, also passes away. It is no surprise that Raja is looking for a way to rid herself of this burden, and although she cleans the house and cooks for Robis, she also has her eye on an English-language competition that would send her to London for a week.

We soon discover why she wants to go to London when she looks pensively at a UK-stamped envelope. The narrative strands that ultimately enable her to take back control of her life fall into place all at once and just at the right time, but Renārs Vimba’s strong directorial hand, which makes it appear that everything is happening of its own accord and at its own pace, make it easy to look past this contrivance.

Two big relationships shape the rest of the plot in significant ways. The first is the one with Robis, whose frustration with the living situation gradually leads to him engaging in activities he is not ready for and lashing out by committing petty crimes and refusing to listen to his sister, who has taken on the role of substitute mother. This relationship alternates between playful and abrasive (a tension best visualised in the opening scene), but to writer-director Vimba’s credit it never snaps, and this domestic situation – strained yet intimate – creates real-world empathy in the viewer.

The other relationship is with Raja’s handsome young English teacher, played by a lightly bearded Edgars Samītis, who has moved to the countryside from the capital Riga for reasons never made clear, but we can easily assume that he was looking for an escape himself. Although he has no idea about Raja’s true intentions regarding London, he is captivated by her skills in English despite her having missed numerous lessons over the past year. He is slowly drawn to her in scenes that are perfectly staged because we keep asking ourselves what the physical closeness between them means and whether it will lead to a more intimate relationship.

The English title is meaningless, especially since the original Latvian title, which translates as “I am here”, forcefully conveys Raja’s resistance against being forgotten by those around her.

The two standout finds of this film are its director, for whom this was a feature-film début but who displays a very firm hand for rhythm, visuals and performances, and actress Elīna Vaska, who never pouts or struts or throws a tantrum or is too clever. On the contrary, her teenage character is that rare find in films: a youngster who actually behaves like a relatable human being and gets our empathy not by begging for it but by seeming wholly authentic.

Mellow Mud‘s filmmaking, which is solid throughout, kicks it up a notch in the final scenes, which are utterly compelling because of both the closure they bring to the story and the lack (or minimal use) of dialogue used to achieve this purpose. These scenes show us how much can be accomplished by having good actors use their body instead of their words and having the camera put us in an intimate position that allows us to observe the action without feeling like we are intruding. The effect is mesmerising and due entirely to each member of the cast and crew deploying their talents with great success.

Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2016.

Train Driver’s Diary (2016)

Train Driver’s Diary is a Wes Anderson–like take on the spectre of death that comically hangs over the life of every train driver.

Train Driver's Diary4*
Serbia

Director:
Miloš Radović
Screenwriter:
Miloš Radović
Director of Photography:
Dušan Joksimović

Running time: 85 minutes

Original title: Dnevnik mašinovođe

There is something delightfully Wes Andersonian about the Serbian Train Driver’s Diary, even though the black humour of the story is inherently, unmistakably Balkan and would never make it past a Hollywood executive. The exuberantly staged sets are one reason for this – countless scenes take place inside redecorated train compartments that are a world unto themselves – but another is the symmetry inside the shots, to which train tracks visually lend themselves.

Narration is sparse and belongs to Ilija (Lazar Ristovski, who looks and behaves like a low-key version of John Cleese), a train driver and lifelong bachelor who in the prologue tells us how many people he has killed over the years. It’s not his fault, he assures us, it is just something that comes with the territory. And without missing a beat, we see him crash into a minivan filled with an entire Gypsy band that has got stuck on the tracks.

He visits two psychologists to assess how he is coping post-trauma, but his hilariously graphic retelling of the accident causes the one to throw up and the other to faint. For him, however, this is just part of life. He has clearly disconnected from the social fabric of existence and has no intimate relationship with almost anybody. That is, until he nearly runs over a 10-year-old orphan boy, Sima (Pavle Erić), who has decided to end his own life. For whatever reason, Ilija takes Sima under his wing, and before we know it, thanks to a wonderful cut that allows the director to change time but not place, the boy’s voice has broken.

The teenage Sima has but one dream: to become a train driver like “Uncle” Ilija. But Ilija will have none of it and persistently reminds Sima that he can do whatever he wants when Ilija is dead, but until then, he will not be a train driver. The main reason, of course, is the inherently homicidal nature of the job – a heavy burden that Ilija has had to shoulder for decades and from which he wants to spare the naïve Sima. But the latter has his heart set on the train industry, and so he gets sent to train as a dispatcher, before life inevitably intervenes.

The film is filled with oddball situations and eccentric characters, including a hairless dog with a mop of hair reminiscent of Donald Trump’s infamous coif. One particularly funny moment has Sima doing push-ups with the dog on his back providing very little extra weight.

Petar Korać provides a charming performance as the late-teen Sima, a blond-haired blue-eyed boy with a heart of gold who has always been cared for by Ilija but who has never received any physical intimacy from him – not even a hug. This has left the young man socially awkward but eminently likeable, although the scene in which he freaks out driving a train for the first time requires him to stretch his eyes as big as plates, pull his face like a clown and emote to a degree that speeds past acceptability into the domain of the histrionic.

Train Driver’s Diary could have done with a better title – perhaps “Love and Death: The Tragicomic Life of a Train Driver”? – but the film itself is a continuous joy that manages to squeeze a great deal of narrative and emotions into a relatively short running time. The characters are all very memorable, and although a final development regarding Ilija’s long-lost girlfriend Danica takes up too much time, it does provide a satisfying climax to his otherwise painfully slow emotional development.

Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2016.

These Are the Rules (2014)

Pain, anguish and confusion are at the heart of this Croatian film about two low-income parents who are incapable of coping with tragedy. 

These Are the Rules3*
Croatia

Director:
Ognjen Sviličić

Screenwriter:
Ognjen Sviličić

Director of Photography:
Crystel Fournier

Running time: 75 minutes

Original title: Takva su pravila

Perhaps the best way to create tension is to have a character ask those questions that we, the viewers, are also thinking but that we know cannot be answered, at least not by those in the scene. In Croat director Ognjen Sviličić’s absolutely heart-wrenching These Are the Rules, a mother and father have to deal as best they know how with the sudden death of their only son, Tomica (Hrvoje Vladisavljević). The mother, Maja, keeps asking very basic questions that the father, Ivo, cannot answer, and this frustration ultimately leads to an arbitrary act of catharsis for them, but not for us.

The 17-year-old Tomica is consistently unwilling to share his life with his parents, who have grown used to him being holed up in his room. He gets beaten up and chooses to hide his bruises from his parents, especially the overprotective Maja, but he eventually relents and lets them take him to the doctor, even though he initially scoffs at his mother’s suggestion of getting stitches. But soon he falls into a coma and then into an eternal sleep, and we quickly come to share the parents’ sense of despair at this predicament they are in because their son sought to shield them from what seemed like unnecessary worries.

The rest of the film is relentlessly bleak, and the dread that starts to set in following Tomica’s hospitalisation at the end of the first act is easily on par with the emotion evoked by a similar plotline in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. In the case of Sviličić’s film, however, there is no dramatic breather provided by cutting away to other stories, and the knot in the pit of our stomachs never goes away.

Ivo and Maja are low-income Croats living on the outskirts of Zagreb. Ivo is a bus driver, while Maja appears to be unemployed. They reveal themselves to be out of their depth when it comes to not only handling their son’s secretive behaviour but also searching for meaning following a tragedy like the one they are thrust into when their son passes out while drawing a bath. Sometimes, the setting is to blame (overcrowded hospital waiting rooms, especially, as well as medical personnel who blatantly – and in this case, fatally – disregard the urgency of their patients’ conditions), but at other times they simply do not have the experience to ask the right questions. Their lack of engagement is not directly to blame for their son’s untimely demise, but it makes the process of coping so much more difficult, because there are no satisfying answers when they don’t know which questions to ask or whom to ask for help.

It is entirely understandable that the events leave them in shock, and the father’s decision to tell people things are not particularly serious is a lie whose purity of purpose the viewer should recognise (and sympathise with) immediately. But his and his wife’s inaction in the face of trauma leave us pining for help to arrive. They visit the police station to report the attack on their son, but instead of explaining the severity of their situation, they relate the events calmly to the officer and leave without any real prospect of a serious investigation. The same happens at the hospital and at the morgue, where they receive life-changing news without any detailed explanation or advice from a professional. Their response is always either to be inactive or to talk around the problem by asking questions that are inconsequential.

Despite the director’s well-chosen approach of frustrating the viewer with traumatic stasis, however, the climax is wholly unsatisfying because it plays out more like a dream than the grim reality full of obstacles we have come to expect. While the violence in the final act makes sense on paper, it is committed in a void: a public space that someone has no witnesses that could incriminate the aggressor. It is a fantasy, and its inclusion in the film goes against the pain and confusion at the core of the film.

Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2016.

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation tackles America’s original sin with a mesmerising lead performance by the director, but Parker would have benefitted from honing his skills first before bringing this weighty topic to the big screen.

birth-of-a-nation3.5*
USA

Director:
Nate Parker

Screenwriter:
Nate Parker

Director of Photography:
Elliot Davis

Running time: 120 minutes

Jacques Rivette would have been horrified by one shot towards the very end of The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s historic depiction of an unsuccessful uprising among the slave-owning population of south-eastern Virginia in the early 19th-century. Starting with a close-up of a black man hung by the neck and dangling from a tree, the camera slowly and all too elegantly tracks back slowly to reveal six more people – men, women and children – who have suffered the same fate.

The sharp contrast between the brutality these people have suffered and the sophistication of the visuals is similar to the oft-cited indictment of a shot in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1960 film, Kapò, which led Rivette, at the time a film critic for the Cahiers du cinéma and already a filmmaker in his own right, to pen a scathing article on the use of a dolly shot to transform the abhorrent – his article was titled “On Abjection” – into something pretty and digestible.

Parker wrote and directed The Birth of a Nation 100 years after DW Griffith’s eponymous epic about the Civil War that is often berated for its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan and its shocking presentation of black characters. He also stars in the lead role as Nat Turner, a black preacher who is employed by his owner and childhood friend, Samuel, to keep other slaves in line by talking to them about God’s love for them and his desire for them to work hard so that one day, presumably after a lifetime of abuse, they can reach heaven.

Turner, who shared his last name with his owner, as was the usage at the time, has a face we cannot look away from, and Parker’s performance is soft yet riveting. He is a reluctant hero; his awakening is gradual and one that he evidently wants to repress because he knows the likely outcome. And yet, after turning too God to soothe the pain of slavery, blunt the anger he and his fellow slaves feel and talk away the daily abuse, he finally recognises that the Bible has at least as many points justifying an uprising as it has relenting to domination by another.

We first meet Turner as a young boy, the son of slaves working on an estate in an outwardly idyllic setting: the lush green forests of Virginia. It goes without saying that the social environment is altogether very different, and despite the desire of the owner’s daughter to raise the precocious Nat in their home to read the Bible (other books are for whites only, she warns), the power structure is immediately clear as Nat’s own mother has no say in the matter.

Over time, he sees the monstrous way in which slave owners in the vicinity handle their workers, especially Raymond Cobb, the ruthless man who went after his father. And while he manages to ignore the harrowing cruelty, it ultimately affects his life directly when two women in his life are raped by smiling white gentlemen. One can almost hear the words of Ezekiel 25:17, made famous by Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, resonate louder and louder as the injustices build on each other with alarming normalcy: “I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.”

Unfortunately, there is a palpable sense that this is the film of a first-time filmmaker. For all its meandering, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave always felt like the work of a director with a vision, a firm hand and a sense for quality. The Birth of a Nation has a powerful overarching story and a notable though all-too-brief third act, but the camerawork is forgettable (when it is not objectionable, as in the example at the top of the review), shots of hallucinations with backlit angels are beyond silly, and the performance of the actor playing the young Nat is too serious and controlled.

The director also underestimates his audience, for example when he recaps the major moments of hatred that Nat has witnessed – all of which we have seen – before burning the words of 1 Samuel 15:2 into the screen as a way to tell us that things about to change big-time. This kind of repetition assumes the viewer has not been paying attention, even though the iniquities are always immediately apparent and often gruesome to watch. 

The Birth of a Nation has a theme and a story every bit as important as those of other major films about slavery, but the depiction is often watered down for mass consumption, the story is too slight, and the execution is too amateurish to have a great impact on the viewer. Except for telling a story that really happened but had not been brought to the screen until now, the film does not distinguish itself from its brothers and sisters and is a missed opportunity. However, it does provide a much-needed corrective to D.W. Griffith’s unabashedly racist rendering of black Americans.

Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2016.

Truman (2015)

A man reaching the end of his natural life has to juggle his quest to find a decent adoptive family for his dog and an unexpected visit from an old friend.

trumanSpain/Argentina
4.5*

Directed by:
Cesc Gay

Screenwriters:
Cesc Gay

Tomàs Aragay
Director of Photography:
Andreu Rebés

Running time: 110 minutes

Truman says nothing and does very little except rest, sigh and sleep. And yet, the emotion that his presence elicits from the viewer of the film titled after him and helmed by Catalan director Cesc Gay is nearly pulverising.

“Truman” is a long-in-the-tooth, slow-on-his-feet boxer that has been with Julián, an Argentine-born theatre actor based in Madrid for more than three decades, for a long time. It comes as no surprise that Truman has basically become the divorced Julián’s life companion and second son.

After a brief opening scene in snow-swept Quebec (a running joke is that Julián consistently calls it the North Pole), we follow the middle-aged Tomás from his home to the airport and to Julián’s front door. Their meeting, after what we gather is too long, brings tears to Tomás’s eyes. But like so much else in the film, there is a gradual accumulation of details that clue us in about precisely why people act the way they do. In this particular case, the emotion comes not so much from seeing an old friend again but from the probability of this being the last time they meet.

Julián has been suffering from cancer for a while, and there is little hope left the new round of chemotherapy would keep him alive for much longer. Instead, he has decided to embrace the end and live out his final days far away from the hospital’s oncology department. He is also eyeing the future, and besides organising his funeral, perhaps the most important task is to find a suitable home for his beloved Truman.

While we see the dog only occasionally, he is never far from our minds, as his name pops up in conversations between the two lifelong friends, and we can see Julián’s concern for Truman’s future well-being gnaw at him, likely because it also serves as a constant reminder that Julián will no longer be around.

In the lead, Argentine superstar Ricardo Darín inhabits the lead role like a second skin. Unshaven but with a gravelly voice of gold and piercing blue eyes that can seduce or give a fatal death stare with equal poise, Julián is captivating to watch. Often an enigma, ironically the result of his unexpected and discomfiting forthrightness, he is at his most vulnerable in the company of his son, Nico, and the range of emotions that Darín betrays with amazing subtlety is heartrending.

Tomás, played by Pedro Almodóvar regular Javier Cámara, is an eminently likeable character who gives his old friend a great deal of leeway, even though his initial intention was to talk him out of skipping the chemotherapy. Over time, thanks to some gentle and not-so-gentle reminders from Julián’s cousin, Paula, we realise he feels a measure of guilt over not having visited Tomás more often, despite being in a much better financial situation than his friend the theatre actor.

This is the perfect combination of comedy and tragedy. Despite the grim reality of Julián’s health, his interactions with those around him – many of whom don’t quite know how to react to someone planning for their own imminent demise – produce countless scenes of laughter at the awkwardness into which he rushes head first. Whether it is his questioning of Truman’s veterinarian about dogs’ feelings after the death of their owner or his chance meeting with an old friend whose girlfriend he slept with and for which he now wishes to apologise, the narrative always finds new finds to entertain us with genuinely moving pieces of the puzzle.

But the real magic lies in the fact that many a scene derives its emotional power from us looking back at them with hindsight, perhaps none more beautiful than the aftermath of Julián’s spur-of-the-moment visit to Nico (in retrospect, a perfectly pitched performance by Oriol Pla). Nico is studying in Amsterdam and knows little about his father’s current state. While their interaction in Amsterdam is full of the awkwardness and warmth we would expect, we only realise afterwards what was really going on, and the revelation is enough to send the viewer grabbing unashamedly for the nearest box of tissues. And this is before a mesmerisingly staged final scene that will tear down any remaining diehards’ bulwarks against showing emotion.

While losing some of its texture in the final act, in particular during an ill-fitting scene that sees a major character storm off in anger, Truman is overwhelmingly a very well-controlled mix of comedy and melancholy. The performances are dynamite, with Darín deserving top honours, and the modulated rollercoaster of emotions that we feel heightens our sympathy for the characters.

The Angels’ Share (2012)

Ken Loach goes easy on the grit, promotes the inspirational side of this dramatic fairy tale in which Scottish whisky plays a central role. 

Angels’ ShareUK
3.5*

Director:
Ken Loach

Screenwriter:
Paul Laverty

Director of Photography:
Robbie Ryan

Running time: 100 minutes

Ken Loach is not exactly known for the flippant nature of his films. He has, together with fellow British director Mike Leigh, carved out the gritty social realist niche of his country’s film industry and has done so methodically over more than four decades since one of his first films, Kes, burst onto the screen in 1969.

His primary focus on the working class and his obviously sincere attempts to capture their toil and struggles, and represent them by actors in a fictional film, has gained him a large following of filmgoers who perceive the cinema as a tool to bring such naturalism to people’s attention.

In The Angels’ Share, he still follows that line, though the territory he stakes out is a bit more obviously cinematic than one would have expected from him. Nonetheless, the film’s best bits are all firmly tied to the central, slightly contrived, thrust of the narrative, and oddly enough the bits of social drama we would have guessed to be Loach’s strong suit come across as little more than an afterthought.

Set in Glasgow, the film opens with a gorgeous introductory sequence in juvenile court, where many young boys and girls are mostly sentenced to community service for their various crimes. One of the boys is a young man called Robbie (Paul Brannigan), who has a scar across his face, which he got, we soon learn, one night when he was walking the streets while coked up and decided it would be a good idea to kick a random stranger to within an inch of his life.

We never see the rest of Robbie’s family, and he spends most of his evenings on a mattress at a friend’s apartment. He has just become a father, but his girlfriend’s family has no intention of allowing him to associate with his new-born son. There are other young men, too, who threaten to beat him up if they see him around, and the fear he has for his well-being is as warranted as it is constant.

These threats manifest themselves in a few small scenes of mild violence, but Robbie doesn’t seem to live in any fear and refuses to let the young hoodlums get to him. This storyline doesn’t always come across as coherently as it should, as Robbie’s girlfriend appears and disappears for the sake of a narrative that seems to pretend it has powerful domestic questions to resolve, but actually this is just padding for the other storyline.

This other part of the film is much more interesting, though it is by no means exceptional. It has to do with Robbie’s friendship with Harry (John Henshaw), the father-like guard on duty during the community service hours, from whom he learns all about whisky and discovers he has a natural talent for appreciating this malt spirit. He is noticed by a whisky collector, Thaddeus (Roger Allam), who is impressed by Robbie’s knowledge and feeling for the drink. And the time Robbie has spent in jail comes in handy enough when he recognises the potential money to be made from the whisky industry.

Like magic dust on the grim, directionless lives of the main characters, most of them involved in community service projects after run-ins with the law, the “angels’ share” in the title refers to the small fraction of whisky that disappears over time while it is kept in the oak barrels. It evaporates, and is therefore handed to the angels, as it were. The film’s intention is to make whisky a kind of golden elixir that gives Robbie a new lease on life, or perhaps a new life altogether, pulling him up into the ranks of honest work, and for this purpose the drink is well-chosen.

Like the work of fellow countryman Leigh, Loach draws very credible performances from his actors, many of whom, including lead actor Brannigan, had never starred in a film before. There is very little in the film that feels acted or staged, with the exception of Robbie’s girlfriend, who sometimes delivers her lines with visibly less poise than her fellow cast members.

The Angels’ Share is performed in a very strong Glaswegian accent that is not always easy to follow, though the actions and the general ambience of the film are put onscreen very well and allow viewers outside Glasgow to follow the storyline and easily empathise with these characters. While issues of drugs and poverty are touched on, the film has an optimistic approach to the representation of this working-class segment of the population and seeks to inspire the viewer.

This inspirational approach produces something a bit like a fairy tale that may not be credible to everyone, but it makes for a film well worth watching.

The Arrival of a Train (1897)

The 50-second recording of a train’s arrival at La Ciotat Station was neither one of the first films ever made nor a reason for filmgoers to run in terror from the theatre.

train-ciotat5*
France

Directors:
Auguste Lumière

Louis Lumière
Screenwriters:
Auguste Lumière

Louis Lumière
Directors of Photography:
Auguste Lumière

Louis Lumière

Running time: 50 seconds

Original title: l’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat
Alternate title: l‘Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat

The Arrival of a Train, while so often credited with being “the first”, was actually anything but. It was not the first film to be recorded, nor the first to be shown, nor even the first “arriving train” film that its makers, the two fathers of the cinematic art form, ever produced. But for good reason it has become a symbol of the power of movement and verisimilitude that rapidly propelled this monochrome curiosity into the pantheon of art forms.

The story goes that this 50-second shot showing an oncoming train created such terror among the room full of cinematic neophytes that it sent them scattering for their lives. The incident allegedly took place in January 1896, that is in the weeks that followed the very first screening of brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière’s first 10 “views”, each roughly 1 minute in length, at the Salon indien du Grand Café in Paris on 28 December 1895.

Did they or did they not flee from their seats when they saw the train approach? Although the story above has become one of the foundational myths of the cinema and has been recounted in countless film studies books and classes over the years, it no longer holds much sway.

In theory, the story makes absolute sense, not only because of the novelty of seeing almost life-sized movements from up close but also because Paris, where the first screenings of the Auguste and Louis Lumière’s one-minute films were held, was the setting for a famous train derailment just weeks earlier: On 22 October 1895, a locomotive like the one in the film sped towards Montparnasse Station, but when its brakes failed, it crashed through the barriers, careened across the station concourse and plummeted into the street below.

But here’s the rub: The famous Arrival of a Train that has become such an icon of the early days of cinema was actually shot a full 18 months after the inaugural screening at the Salon indien. And it was the Lumières’ second attempt at capturing this scene. Of this first film, which might or might not have had the same title and was projected in multiple venues starting in Lyon on 26 January 1896, only the copies of 32 representative frames remain, published as part of an article on the working of the cinematograph in the journal La Science française (no. 59, 13 March 1896, p. 89). These images, whose quality is just good enough to confirm they belong to a very different scene than the one in Arrival of a Train, may be viewed by clicking here.

As with most of the Lumières’ works, which fit into what film historian Siegfried Kracauer dubbed the “absolute realism” camp, this particular “view” is exceedingly straightforward: In the opening frame, a man on a station platform is hauling an empty luggage cart behind him before disappearing off-screen. But blink and you’ll miss him looking straight into the camera, which is likely why the film was cut in such a way as to prevent the viewer from noticing this breaking of the fourth wall (it is conspicuous that no one else appears to notice the Lumières’ giant camera/cinematograph and hand-crank operator/director of photography on the platform).

The man’s departure from the frame reveals behind him a crowd of people waiting in line for a train to arrive, which happens almost immediately. One of the people in the crowd is a woman holding hands with her child, dressed in white; walking briskly alongside the train, in the direction of the viewer, they pass by and exit the frame moments before the train comes to a complete stop.

This woman is Marguerite Lumière (née Winckler), the wife of Antoine, and the child is their three-year-old son, Andrée, who starred as the lead (and titular) character in Feeding the Baby (Repas de bébé), directed in February 1896. And the appearance of Andrée, born on 22 June 1894, is proof that the film could not have been shot in 1895, because the child onscreen is clearly much older than 12 months. In fact, Arrival of a Train was shot in the summer of 1897 at the train station in the seaside town of La Ciotat, along the Côte d’Azur, just southeast of Marseille. 

The story of the terrified filmgoers may be nothing more than marketing, but the film itself is one of the crowning achievements of the Lumière brothers. With a single, fixed shot, they make the train the central character entering the scene with flair that almost certainly evoked a (measured) reaction in the viewer thanks to the movement inside the frame. This was the beginning of something big.

Vale (2015)

These 10 minutes on Ibiza spent with five Spaniards and an American girl, despite the commercial origins (and intent) of the production, are simply irresistible.

vale-amenabarSpain
4*

Director:
Alejandro Amenábar

Screenwriters:
Alejandro Amenábar

Oriol Villar
Directors of Photography:
Eduard Grau

Cyrill Labbe

Running time: 10 minutes

A romantic story with a touch of magic, even when blatantly presenting itself as little more than a commercial for the Catalan beer brand “Estrella”, can still be affecting, and it is a pleasant surprise to discover how quickly the 10-minutelong Vale swoops us off our feet and carries us on a wave of laughter and curiosity off towards the stars.

See, estrella means “star”, and in this short film by Alejandro Amenábar, perhaps the most consistently awe-inspiring filmmaker the Spanish film industry has ever seen, the brand is not just a name but also a symbol, both literal and figurative, for the story itself.

Victor (Quim Gutiérrez) is a handsome young Spaniard we first meet next to the swimming pool one morning, hanging out with his handful of close friends. The one outsider, an American girl named Rachel (Dakota Johnson), catches his eye, and he tries to strike up a conversation with her. The problem is that he barely speaks a word of English. She only met up with Victor’s friends at a party the previous evening, as one does on the party island of Ibiza.

Their initial interaction is pure awkwardness from beginning to end, as Victor tries to string a sentence together but fails miserably, even as a smile never leaves his face. But then, something magical happens: He connects with Rachel through the intermediary of his friends’ interpreting, by revealing his comprehensive knowledge of the tiniest of details about movies, music and even art exhibitions.

The reason is an Estrella-inspired Slumdog Millionaire, which reveals itself to us through a string of very succinct  flashbacks that demonstrate how the promise of an Estrella with his friends and his decision to accept the invitation (the title, Vale, is a Spanish interjection that roughly translates as “OK”) ultimately exposed him to countless cultural experiences that he now draws on to impress Rachel on the other side of the linguistic abyss.

The visuals are sharp and clean, and we are always aware that Estrella Damm, whose name is the first to appear as part of the opening credits, is behind this project. And yet, somehow, we don’t care. The narrative has a very deliberate whiff of contrivance that we nevertheless succumb to because of the promise of magic if we suspend our disbelief.

This being a short film, the pay-off comes very quickly, although it has to be said that the ending is surprisingly open-ended. Vale positions itself as a romantic film of sorts by making it clear very early on that Victor, who not coincidentally is always wearing red (or showing off his strapping torso), has the hots for Rachel and by overtly referencing films about relationships, like Before SunriseLove Story and (admittedly, for a laugh) There’s Something About Mary.

Vale is too short and leaves us wanting more, but it is a gem of a movie that you can watch again and again and never grow tired of. Just like the Mediterranean climate in which their friendship blossoms over the course of a single day, these characters all have an irresistible warmth about them that makes us feel completely at ease, like we’re one of the gang.