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.


Alejandro Amenábar

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.

Elephants Never Forget (2004)

Lorenzo Vigas’s short film looks at the indecision confronting a young boy and his sister who think they have made up their minds to kill their father.


Lorenzo Vigas
Lorenzo Vigas

Director of Photography:
Héctor Ortega

Original title: Los elefantes nunca olvidan

Running time: 11 minutes

Juan (Guillermo Muñoz) is on a mission, but he hasn’t quite thought it through. In the opening scene of Lorenzo Vigas’s 2004 short Elephants Don’t Forget, he walks quickly down a dirt road, his torn jeans featuring prominently in close-up. He reaches a nondescript tenement with graffiti-covered outside walls, where his sister (Greisy Mena) furtively hands him a paper bag with a pistol inside. It seems they are both in on the mission, but her misgivings are much more evident. Initially, they are both so nervous they don’t even look at each other as they head towards what they hope will be their scene of the crime.

We quickly learn the intended victim is their biological father, Pedro (Gonzalo Cubero), because of whom they carry scars both physical and mental. Somehow they have tracked him down selling fruit at “the outpost”, have procured a revolver and hitched a ride on the truck transporting Pedro from one place to the next to peddle his wares.

Of course, once they come face to face with their nemesis, whose absence has fed their fury, they start to doubt whether they can go through with it. Juan, who is tasked with pulling the trigger, evinces palpable indecision as he tries to put on a brave face while fighting his inner demons. It is no surprise that he is full of bravado when Pedro either is far away or has his eyes closed, but once Pedro stares him down, he surrenders all his bravery.

Notwithstanding Pedro’s description of himself halfway through the film as an “elephant” because he never forgets a face, despite the fact that he doesn’t recognise his own flesh and blood and even goes as far as to flirt (albeit unknowingly) with his daughter, the “elephants” in the title likely refer to Juan and his sister, too. But if it is Pedro, one has to keep in mind it takes more a mere bullet to fell an elephant, and if it is the two teenagers, well, when was the last time you saw an elephant with a pistol?

These two children are out of their depth, and while we can empathise with their rage (in an early close-up, we see a gruesome scar allegedly left by Pedro’s earlier abuse), it is fascinating to see them try to convince themselves that revenge taken in this way is the best way to deal with the injustices of the past. Half of the film – a five full minutes – takes place on the back of the truck as Pedro tries to strike up a conversation with the two unwilling children.

Although the film has some gorgeous shots that play off blue skies against the fields of almost luminous yellow, with dark clouds hovering just above the horizon, the handheld camera and the very brutal editing, which includes inserting close-ups without warning, serve no real purpose beyond signalling the film was made on what appears to be a shoestring budget.

Except for the father issues and in particular the desire of a man or a boy to kill his own father, there is no apparent point of contact between Elephants Never Forget and director Vigas’s feature film début, From Afar, which examines the indecision of a young man about embarking on a relationship with a 50-something dental prostheticist in a much more visually sumptuous production.

From Afar (2015)

On the streets of Caracas, father issues push two men – the one in his late 50s, the other barely out of school – together into an ambiguous relationship that defies explanation until it’s too late.


Lorenzo Vigas

Lorenzo Vigas

Director of Photography:
Sergio Armstrong

Running time: 90 minutes

Original title: Desde allá

He doesn’t blink. Almost never. He has money; they don’t. But for them to get the money, they have to expose themselves to his gaze until climax.

“He” is Armando (Alfredo Castro), a dental prostheticist in Caracas, Venezuela. “They” are young boys in wife-beaters who hang out on the street and can always do with an extra buck. One of them is Élder, who has a girlfriend but gets lured into Armando’s flat before violently taking the money to establish his manliness, or rather, his non-homosexuality (he constantly refers to Armando as an “old faggot”), and then fleeing the scene.

Armando, one of the two leads in Lorenzo Vigas’s From Afar, is an enigma. His apartment is immaculate but very quiet, and visitors are always for-pay. He has established a certain rhythm, and even when things don’t go as planned, he merely executes his plan as before, convinced that this time, somehow, the result will be different. But the viewer has good reason to be on edge, particularly because of the ominous but absolutely ravishing opening scene, shot in very shallow focus out on the streets of the capital, where Armando is on the prowl, visually isolated from everyone around him. This opening scene bookends strikingly with the deep-focus final scene, also set in downtown Caracas.

Armando has almost no social interaction with anyone except those he solicits with a heavy wad of cash – often in public. In an early scene, he shows up at his sister’s apartment. There is a short, hazy conversation about their father, who is back in the city, and the tension between Armando and his sister is thick enough to cut with a knife. But the rage remains pent-up, and the father, whom we never see up close but always “from afar”, wholly unapproachable.

In the meantime, Élder develops a relationship with Armando that is neither sexual nor friendly but rather one of convenience: Élder, who works in an auto shop and has no problem bringing in business directly from cars parked on the streets of Caracas, gets a sugar daddy who pays for whatever he needs, while Armando has some real human contact for what we assume is the first time in years.

Both of these characters suffer from a lifetime of daddy issues, however, and it is impossible to ignore Armando’s role as a father figure in the young man’s life. At the same time, however, Venezuela does not appear to be the most hospitable area for a relationship between two men, and they both have their ways of hiding their emotions and interest when in public. Unfortunately, this reservedness extends even into the private sphere, and we rarely get a glimpse into their thought processes.

For an extended period of time, one question hangs in the air: What does Armando get out of this? His emotions are suppressed to the point of being completely pulverised, so we won’t get an answer from him, but will this relationship manage to reinvigorate him? By the time the end credits roll, it would appear that Armando only used Élder to expel some of his own demons, but the fragmentary presentation of the film’s narrative helps very little in making sense of the events and the characters.

In his acting début, the young Luis Silva is a revelation. Although his character has a devil-may-care attitude at the outset, presumably a defence mechanism against a life that was not always easy, Silva’s deep dark eyes imbue him with a darkness that is ambiguous and keeps up wondering who will ultimately have the upper hand. By the time he cleans up and dons a proper shirt for a birthday party, it is impossible not to notice the seductive young man with the peachy lips who had been hiding in full view the whole time.

From Afar draws out its mysteries, relishing in our futile attempts to make sense of the slowly unspooling relationship, perhaps in the same way that the two characters are, although we cannot know for sure because the one (in part) and the other (in full) are so reluctant to stand naked before us, as it were. With such a short running time, it would be wrong to ask for much more colour, but a handful of scenes seem to be fragments left behind when earlier, fuller scenes were pared down for the sake of artistic obfuscation. But the silences – and Armando’s silent stare, especially – will continue to haunt the viewer long after the final credits.

Viewed at the Be2Can 2016 Film Festival.

The Unknown Girl (2016)

The Dardenne brothers’ worst film in memory has a tour de force performance by French actress Adèle Haenel.


Luc Dardenne

Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Luc Dardenne

Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Director of Photography:
Alain Marcoen

Running time: 110 minutes

Original title: La fille inconnue

Jenny initially seems like a professional, but then she sticks her nose in where it doesn’t belong, screws up an important police investigation and commits ethically questionable practices in the course of her launching her own amateur probe à la Nancy Drew, quickly diminishing she standing she had at the outset.

By the end of the The Unknown Girl, the latest film by Belgium’s famous social-realist filmmaker brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, everything is tied up neatly with a bow, and those primed to accept it will forgive the film its faults.

But before we reach the end, there is a whole lot to be irritated by, and even the dynamite performance of the gifted lead actress, Adèle Haenel, cannot save this from being one of the worst fiction films the experienced Dardennes have ever produced.

At the start of the film, a woman is found murdered on the side of the river in the city of Liège, across the road from a doctor’s office, where Jenny Davin, a young but dedicated doctor, has recently taken over and is making great strides in her career. On the night of the murder, Jenny is at the office lecturing her intern about the importance of setting one’s emotions aside lest they cloud the diagnosis of a patient. When the door buzzer sounds, she coldly explains that it is too late in the evening and that, if it were truly an emergency, the person would buzz again.

The next day, she learns that the deceased had been the same person who rang the buzzer moments before her death. Naturally, this news fills her with a sense of culpability. But what she does for the rest of the film becomes more and more difficult to empathise with, particularly because her actions stand in such stark contrast with (and change so quickly from) her earlier approach of prudence and professionalism.

Shot mostly as single-take scenes with a handheld camera, The Unknown Girl has a gritty visual aesthetic that closely mirrors the one on display in all of the brothers’ other award-winning films. Every one of the duo’s feature films since their 1996 début, La promesse, has been shot by Alain Marcoen.

It is easy to convince oneself that Jenny’s sharp focus on investigating the crime and discovering the identity of the girl has merit, particularly because a resolution would almost certainly bring closure and return things to normal. Over time, however, Jenny’s behaviour becomes more and more unprofessional, to the point that she even tells someone in desperate need of medical attention that she will only be available an hour later – the reason being that she deems her mission to collect information to be more important than delivering life-saving assistance.

As far as we can tell, Jenny has no professional background in tracking down criminals or solving crimes. That is what the police is for, and while this is only one of the items on their roster and their progress is not as swift as she would like, they have infinitely more experience. After all, by looking into the matter they are doing their job, whereas Jenny is abnegating hers.

The narrative is built on small details revealed along the way. Primarily, they involve one of her clients, a teenage boy named Bryan (Louka Minnella), who suffers from chronic indigestion, whose assistance in tracking down the person responsible for the title character’s death becomes less and less credible with every passing moment, even though Jenny persists, Columbo-like, in questioning him to the point of harassment.

It is thoroughly surprising that the directors would allow a great many of the answers to simply fall into Jenny’s lap. In a city of 200,000 people, there have to be many coincidences to solve this mystery, and they rain down upon her like manna from heaven. Almost all of her suspicions turn out to be well-founded, and we are compelled to believe that her decision to take time off from work in order to prowl the streets looking for persons of interest is praiseworthy because she moves ever closer to the truth. This kind of storytelling lulls the viewer into a sense of comfort that does not reflect the real world the Dardennes have taken care to reconstruct through their work, and it is a big disappointment to have to witness such flimsy filmmaking in this case.

And yet, if you can look past the lack of narrative complexity and the foolhardy behaviour of the central character, the film’s use of situations in which the main character enters forbidden spaces – a common trope in the Dardennes’ films – is executed with enough distance so as not to appear calculated even though the effect on the viewer is genuine anxiety for the character.

The Unknown Girl suggests that the revered filmmakers are slipping into a comfort zone and are no longer challenging themselves, and that is a real shame, because the tour de force performance they wring out of Haenel is nothing short of mesmerising. If their story had received similar care, this would have been a much more satisfying film.

Viewed at the Be2Can 2016 Film Festival.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

While 12 Years a Slave has its share of problems moving from the page to the screen, it is a haunting film that raises the bar for all other depictions of the 19th-century South.


Steve McQueen
John Ridley
Director of Photography:
Sean Bobbitt

Running time: 135 minutes

The most famous shot in Gaspar Noë’s agonising Irréversible shows a woman in an underground passage in Paris being raped while the camera remains nearly static in front of her, and we helplessly watch her face as she endures relentless brutality. There is a similar shot near the beginning of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, in which we see the formerly freeman Solomon Northup strapped in chains to the floor of a small cell, kneeling towards a barred opening in the wall and being beaten again and again – so hard, in fact, that the implements break upon his back – by a slave owner who bought him from money-hungry kidnappers.

While not without its minor faults, the film is a powerful portrayal of one man’s journey into slavery and is a much-needed improvement over other films in recent years that dealt with the unequal rights of African Americans in U.S. history, such as The Butler.

This adaptation of the real-life Northup’s autobiographical tale relates in great detail how he was a freeman but was likely drugged and sold into slavery, shipped to plantations in Louisiana and had to spend 12 gruelling years (most of them under the whip of a vicious plantation owner named Epps) as someone’s property in conditions that are equally inhuman.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Northup, who has to take the name “Platt” during a slave auction and is stuck with the name for the rest of his time as a slave. Ejiofor’s portrayal of his character, very evidently guided by McQueen’s firm hand, is subtle but consistent, and the film’s ending is a magnificent display of the emotional power that is unleashed when anticipation meets catharsis – with Northup at the centre.

This being a McQueen film, the visuals are breathtaking and slightly unconventional. He is fond of shots that last longer than they would in most other films, and while the beating of Northup, described above, is the most evident example, another impressive shot is the static shot showing the aftermath of an attempted lynching. The horror of the scene is stunningly underscored by the daily activities on the farm continuing to take place as if the victim – straining his neck to free him from the noose – wasn’t even present and struggling for his life. Some viewers may be put off by the use of a few of these lingering shots, as they very often serve to pause rather than emphasise, with the striking exception of this excruciating post-lynching portrait.

The film opens halfway through the story, with Northup trying to fashion a writing implement to no avail and rebuffing the nocturnal advances of a girl who sleeps next to him in the tiny wooden slave cabin.

We then flash back to his life as a free citizen of the northern states, where he lives with his wife and two young children and makes his living as an accomplished violinist. He is called upon by two mysterious gentlemen who promise him great financial reward, and together they travel southward, where he is taken captive in the dark of night, having knocked back too many glasses of alcohol in celebration of his big journey to Washington, D.C. He wakes up in a slave pen, chained, naked and alone, and he has to deny his own status as a freeman.

In Northup’s memoir, he soon impresses with his skills as a violinist, but the film changes this detail in order to establish a bond between Northup and his first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who seems like a man he can trust to set him free. However, Ford’s unwillingness or powerlessness is revealed in two wonderful interactions (between Northup and Ford; and Northup and fellow slave Eliza), neither of which features in the novel, that make clear Ford’s wilful blindness even while we still share Northup’s view of him as a man whom we can call noble in many other respects.

12 Years a Slave is a very faithful cinematic adaptation of the eponymous novel, although it has its share of modifications, two of which stand out: The first concerns the scene in which Northup is chased through the swamp and has to hide from the bloodhounds. It has been omitted from the film, which is a shame, as it was without a doubt the most riveting scene of the entire book.

The second regards the story’s point of view. As the novel was written in the first person, Northup always made it clear which events he experienced with his own body and which ones he learned about from someone else. We had complete faith in Northup when he told the story from his perspective, and we believed the other stories because he believed them. Northup is in almost every single scene of McQueen’s film, but the inclusion of a scene in which he is not present at all – the late-night rape of the young Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o) by the plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender) – make no sense beyond upping our indignation, which by that stage has already reached fever pitch. The terror, violence and disrespect inflicted on Northup are enough to get our empathy: We didn’t need McQueen deploying other characters to mine our souls for pity.

But while the focus could have been tighter and the scenes stitched together more smoothly (indications of the passage of time also would have been helpful, although perhaps this frustration with chronological orientation is exactly what the director intended), the direction is firm, and the effect on the audience is at times devastating. The storyline involving Patsy – particularly those scenes in which Northup is also present, and we can see his reaction to the injustice committed against this young woman whom Epps’s wife despises because of her beauty – is heartrending and produces a very successful depiction of what the book merely mentions in passing.

12 Years a Slave is McQueen’s third film as a director (following Hunger and Shame) and is his best attempt yet to fuse his artistic sensibility with more commercial narrative demands.

I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Newcastle’s welfare office becomes a Kafkaesque setting of incompetence and callousness offering no substantive assistance to the desperate and the unemployed in Ken Loach’s searing I, Daniel Blake.


Ken Loach

Paul Laverty

Director of Photography:
Robbie Ryan

Running time: 100 minutes

Kafka is alive and well in Newcastle, and by extension, most of Western society. The black-and-white opening credits of Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or–winning are accompanied by the sound of Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old widower and former carpenter, trying to knock common sense into a “healthcare professional” who is assessing his case for state benefits. We never see said “professional”, and occasionally we also learn that an equally nameless “decision maker” will resolve Daniel’s case for better or worse.

Dave Johns stars as the recently-stricken-by-a-heart-attack Blake, whose doctor has stated that he should not be working. After he makes a fuss over the bureaucracy he encounters (he had to complete a 52-page form, which somehow still proved insufficient for the government), he is told that a decision has been made that he is fit to work and has to spend 35 hours a week looking for work in order to be eligible for benefits.

The welfare office is always abuzz with activity, but the place reeks of condescension, with middle-aged, lower-middle-class women barking orders at those slightly less fortunate than themselves, pretending that following the rules will somehow lead to a better life. Nobody is listened, everybody is talked down to, and there is no way for the welfare seekers to hang on to their dignity without the government stiffing them for talking back.

It is a desperate situation, and yet Dan has seen worse in his lifetime. His wife died not long ago, and his memories of her, in particular the song the liked, Ronald Binge’s “Shipping By”, which always precedes the BBC’s shipping forecast, appears to keep his spirits up. His pleasant demeanour inspires those around him, including his neighbour, China (the ever-smiling Kema Sikazwe), a resourceful young man who is importing trainers from – you guessed it! – China.

But it is his chance meeting with Katie Morgan (a mesmerisingly intense Hayley Squires), a woman in her mid-20s raising two children from two different fathers on her own, that carries the narrative. After defending her against the callousness of the employees at the welfare office, he quickly strikes up a friendship with her, her daughter, Daisy, and her son, Dylan, and helps them settle into their new but dilapidated home, where his skills as a carpenter and an all-round man of the house come in handy.

The scenes with Katie, who has not found work yet and is unlikely to receive anything from the government because she made a scene, according to the office manager, sustain the narrative and show us how these two characters lean on each other, finding strength and companionship despite their lonely fight against the state Goliath.

The film contains a few powerful scenes, but its power comes from the quiet bubbling desperation that we see in Katie’s life and that we fear might snatch the life from what remains of Daniel’s existence. There is nothing worse than seeing people do their best to care for themselves and for those close to them but having to take desperate measures when push comes to shove. In Katie’s case, she starts skipping meals so that her children have enough to eat, and when she is caught shoplifting, a security guard tells her her looks could help her bring in the money she needs.

As the title indicates, however, the film’s primary concern is identity, and in particular, the need to stand up against anyone – even the State – looking to tear us down. Daniel Blake is recovering from a heart attack, but even a healthy man or woman would blanch at the sight of the bureaucracy and emotional manipulation in which this government agency specialises. For example, Daniel knows nothing about computers and has never used a mouse, but because all the forms he needs are online, and the welfare office refuses to print him a paper copy, he goes hither and thither to complete the process. The final nail in the coffin is when we realise one woman at the office, Ann, wants to help him but is either told to follow the rules or advises him to do things according to the guidelines lest he find himself out on the street, something she has witnessed in the past.

This is a damning indictment of the heartlessness of the Conservative UK government in particular, but more generally of Western society as a whole, which is concerned about its unemployment rates but cares little for the unemployed, not the unemployable.

There will be few dry eyes in the house at the close of the film, and hopefully many a viewer’s heart will beat with rage at the injustice that good people suffer at the hands of those who follow often pointless rules to a fault and relish their power over the powerless.

Viewed at the Be2Can 2016 Film Festival.

Toni Erdmann (2016)

In Toni Erdmann, a combination of daddy issues, Bulgarian masks and false teeth creates a hilarious story about a father and daughter struggling to make a connection.


Maren Ade

Maren Ade

Director of Photography:
Patrick Orth

Running time: 160 minutes

Toni Erdmann is in fact Wilfried Conradi, an elderly German man who tries to reconnect with his high-strung consultant daughter when his beloved dog and longtime companion, Willi, passes away. But don’t let this description put you off because this is one of the funniest films you are ever likely to see.

A lot of the humour has to do with awkwardness, and our laughter is as much the result of nervousness on our part as the expression of wide-eyed astonishment that the actors can stay unfazed by the unexpected drama around them.

Wilfried (Peter Simonischek) is a primary school music teacher who clearly has never given up being a child himself. The opening scene sets the tone perfectly, as a delivery man rings the doorbell to find Wilfried refusing to accept the delivery because his brother, “Toni”, to whom the package is addressed, has just been released from prison following a conviction for sending mail bombs. Moments later, Toni, with buckteeth and a very bad hairpiece, arrives to sign for the package, whose content we get to see only a few scenes later.

In the meantime, the stage is set for what would otherwise be a dour domestic drama examining the difficulty of reconnecting with one’s child as an adult. The child, in this case, is the 30-something Ines (Sandra Hüller), who is doing consulting work for an oil company in Bucharest and spends every moment of her birthday party talking (or pretending to talk) on the phone with business clients. She clearly has little patience for her the antics of her father, who arrives at the party made up to look like a zombie.

But then, something very mundane happens, and it changes everything. In an underplayed but devastating ellipsis, Wilfried’s dog dies in the middle of the night. The following morning, he ups and flies off to Bucharest, because besides him knowing next to nothing about Ines’s life, he now appreciates that this relationship should be cherished as long as they are both around to do so. The problem, admittedly, is that his daughter has neither the time nor the inclination nor, frankly, the social experience to extend a helping hand to her father and comfort him during this time of crisis.

And yet, from the moment he bursts into her carefully preserved house of cards in Bucharest, even though they are basically strangers to each other, and Wilfried’s presence is always on the verge of upending a fragile business deal, they cannot (and we certainly don’t want them to) let go of each other. Ines is so tense she looks like she is always about to have a nosebleed, and yet father, the ultimate foil, sits down on whoopee cushions in front of her colleagues and tells a major client he has decided to hire someone to play his daughter at home because Ines never visits.

Toni is an alter ago, but we get to know him much better than we do Wilfried, and that is the genius behind the film and behind Wilfried’s approach to Ines: These two may be father and daughter, but for whatever reason there is no way for them to relate to each other in the present, and therefore, the best alternative is for them to relate to each other as Toni and Ines. The resulting chemistry, with all its attendant reactions, is volatile but produces a combination so beautiful and rare we might as well be dealing with successful alchemy.

While some may balk at the running time, there is little drag, except for one extended car-bound conversation between Ines and her colleagues that could have been trimmed significantly. Whatever mystery Toni Erdmann has is tied to our awareness – and eventually, our giddy expectation – that the man with the bad wig on his head and the false teeth in his mouth may reappear at any moment.

All of a sudden, in the film’s final act, all the random parts suddenly unify in two unexpectedly brilliant scenes. The first is a musical number; the second, which involves a Bulgarian mask of sorts, flips the script with a scene that had the entire audience in stitches for a full uninterrupted five-minute stretch. Even more impressive is that this latter scene is punctuated by a stunningly poignant, emotionally devastating and indisputably unique catharsis.

The film may be on the long side, but its message is clear: Life is short, so make the most of it, because laugh and cherishing those close to us is a much better use of our time than pretending to be on a phone call to avoid speaking to those who love us and around whom we can be ourselves.

Viewed at the Be2Can 2016 Film Festival.

Anthropoid (2016)

True-to-life account of the two heroes behind a stunning assassination in the heart of Nazi-occupied Bohemia is brilliantly staged but marred by peculiar editing decisions and mishmash of accents.

anthropoidUK/Czech Republic

Sean Ellis

Sean Ellis

Anthony Frewin
Director of Photography:
Sean Ellis

Running time: 120 minutes

There are few people as unequivocally heroic yet as little known outside their home country as Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík. Czechoslovak soldiers born during the First World War, they would grow to see their proud nation in the heart of Europe betrayed by the Allied forces and handed over to Nazi Germany by the time they reached their mid-20s. Their supreme act of bravery – assassinating Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s cold-blooded emissary to the occupied territory of Bohemia and Moravia – ultimately did little to change the tide against the Nazis, but the stand they took against the Third Reich is one of the most admirable acts of the 20th century.

UK director Sean Ellis spent many years developing the screenplay for Anthropoid (the title refers to the codename of the two soldiers’ top-secret mission), and the film’s plot closely resembles the events as they occurred at the end of 1941 and the first half of 1942. However, accuracy and entertainment are by no means the same thing, and it is with this latter point that the director fails to make an adequate impression.

Anthropoid opens late on a cold December night when the two men, who had received their orders from the Czech government-in-exile in the United Kingdom, are dropped 30 kilometres from Prague. Anthropoid screenplay is boldly structured to eschew flashbacks and to limit itself to the Czech territory for exactly as long as the two men’s lifespan.

Very little happens over the course of the first hour, however. Although there is a sense of foreboding regarding the execution of the plan, Ellis does a poor job of showing us life under occupation. Czechs appear to go about their business, even as Germans in uniform show up at their cafés and bars, but there is no real feeling for the Czechs and their (presumably) terrified frame of mind. Uncle Hajský (Toby Jones, whose presence in the film is very steadying) expresses anger about the 1938 Munch Agreement, but that is as much as we get. The film also makes very little effort to show us the camaraderie between the two men who spend six months in very close proximity, most of the time hiding the real purpose of their presence in the Prague to everyone around them.

Unfortunately, because of the actors involved and a number of peculiar decisions made during the editing process, the final product is wildly uneven.

The actors are Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy as the Czech Kubiš and the Slovak Gabčík, respectively, and it was certainly a clever bit of casting, with Dornan being a native of Northern Ireland while Murphy hails from the Republic of Ireland. This cleverness, however, cannot make up for Dornan’s unshakable Irish lilt that hits us every time he opens his mouth, which has the effect of leaving the viewer wholly alienated from the story’s time and place.

Among the rest of the cast, the inconsistency in pronunciation is another nuisance. From a financial point of view, it is understandable that the film was made in English. But while the accents are already imperfect, the issue is compounded by the fact that some Czech cast members choose to pronounce uniquely Czech letters (such as the notoriously difficult-to-pronounce “ř”) in their native tongue, while other players stick to the closest English equivalent.

The editing process is equally flawed, and perhaps the most egregious examples are the otherwise stunning set pieces that serve as pivotal moments in the narrative: the assassination of Heydrich, which takes place in public in broad daylight, and a six-hour shootout inside the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral.

Both of these events, while meticulously staged and deserving of admiration because of how they unfold, have their sound turned off at the most crucial moments. At times, they are only accompanied by the soft sounds of an extradiegetic piano, which imbues them with a cloak of artistry when they require a more gritty sense of immediacy.

The film’s opening minutes are similarly inelegant. After a few introductory bits of text that are misleading at best and historically inaccurate at worst (Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in October 1938 and its full-scale invasion of Czechoslovakia less than six months later are seemingly lumped together), we get a handful of shots in close, slapdash succession that communicate precious little but point to a director more interested in telling his story through the editing suite than with the camera.

Visually, there is nothing particularly memorable about Anthropoid, at least not in a good way, as the film is tinged in a golden hue that is completely unnecessary, and Prague is always covered in a thick layer of fog, with only a church spire, a few rooftops and Prague Castle visible, most likely in order to save money.

And yet, despite all these problems, Ellis does draw on some genuinely moving material in subtle and very effective ways. Perhaps the most powerful moment in the entire film comes very early on when the two parachutists are questioned by the Prague Resistance: Kubiš’s response to a question about his hometown in Moravia shimmers with nostalgia and patriotism conveyed through words alone that conjure up a single image. In that moment, we understand Kubiš’s firm connection to his country and why he has come back to defend it against the ongoing Nazi aggression. Quite simply, it is extraordinary.

Dornan’s accent does not do him any favours, and in general he appears to be absent from the narrative, except for the numerous close-ups on his shivering hands (to make the point, in no uncertain terms, that he is also just a man and does not have nerves of steel). By contrast, Murphy excels as Gabčík, and so does Anna Geislerová, who plays his romantic interest, Lenka, a young woman who has already seen more than her share of violence and experienced more pain during the war than we could imagine.

It would have required a real genius to turn this story of bravery and success-despite-all-odds into anything but riveting, not unlike the entertaining hatchet job that Wolfgang Petersen did with Troy. The lead-up to the action-packed final act is rather dull and dreary, although Ellis has to be commended for minimising the visibility of swastikas – usually a hallmark of these kinds of films, but it is particularly disheartening that the two major set pieces fall short of perfection because of the sound choices. In addition, the climax contains a laughable hallucination that has no place in the film.

This is a story that everyone should be aware of, and this is the most poignant portrayal of the story to date, but the film itself would have benefited from a greater focus on realistic sound, particularly with regard to the accents of the cast.

Redemption (2013)

In Redemption, a former British soldier who endured a tragic episode during his tour of duty in Afghanistan tries to put his life back together and gets some unexpected help from a local crime lord and a Polish nun.


Steven Knight
Steven Knight

Director of Photography:
Chris Menges

Alternate title: Hummingbird

Running time: 100 minutes

Although his name points to potentially religious overtones that could dovetail with the film’s title, Joseph “Joey” Smith (Jason Statham), who shares his name with the founder of Mormonism, never projects any measure of spirituality. In fact, the closest he comes to addressing issues of faith is his occasional but very cursory reflections on whether his behaviour is good enough to redeem him from past mistakes.

Unfortunately, given their implicit significance for Joey, Redemption spends precious little time fleshing out these past mistakes. The opening scene, which is deliberately fragmentary but whose inadequacy and bad staging is revealed in later scenes that slightly elaborate on the action, is apparently the inflection point for Joey. In Afghanistan’s war-torn Helmand Province, Western military men are shot to pieces; shortly afterwards, a Middle Eastern man is marched through a market towards certain death at the hands of his captor, a Western soldier. This seemingly random scene, the only one to take place in Afghanistan, is one of Joey’s mistakes.

But it is also one of the film’s mistakes because the parts are so disjointed that the director already loses us in the opening seconds. We tell ourselves that, “Obviously, the importance will be revealed later in the film”, but the only reason the shootout is memorable is because it looks so bad: There is no setup of place nor character, and we merely get a shot of six seated men in uniform suddenly starting to shake violently to the rhythm of gunfire on the soundtrack before they spit blood. This is gruesome, but we don’t see why we should care. When we realise much later that this was in fact a point-of-view shot, the setup (and the observer’s apparent ability to escape this bloodshed entirely) makes even less sense.

Following this prologue, the narrative quickly shifts gears to one year later on the streets of London, where we find the city’s homeless being preyed on by a small group of aggressive scoundrels. One of the vagrants hits back with some surprising skill and manages to flee the scene. He ends up breaking into a vacant apartment in the city centre, behind Soho and Temple, which he will occupy for the rest of the story as he puts the pieces of his life back in order. His real name is Joey Smith, but the time has come for him to reshape his identity – and with it, his destiny.

However, the story of the apartment is a little too ridiculous for words. It belongs to a well-known photographer who has conveniently left for six months in New York City without setting the alarm. Also, perhaps most preposterously, this man’s wardrobe fits Joey like a glove. In fact, it would not have been much of a stretch to expect a revelation that Joey is in fact the same photographer, a fellow called Damon, but with amnesia, as we never see what the real tenant looks like until the very end of the film. Such a turn of events would not have been much worse than what we get here.

Joey befriends a Polish nun who serves soup to the homeless, initially to ask about the whereabouts of Isabel, a girl with whom he used to share a cardboard box on the street. This relationship with Isabel is sorely underexplained, and it is impossible to imagine why he is so desperate to find her. On a parallel track, some people from his past turn up, but they serve as mere reminders of a life that is a world away, and aside from the vague contours of the war in Afghanistan there is no account of the twists and turns that led him to this point. 

The nun, Cristina, another character with a religion-inflected name, is another blank slate whom we know little about until late in the film when she abruptly becomes a major part of the storyline, even though Joey’s own development is shallow and has very few milestones.

Luckily, Benedict Wong brings some gravitas to the proceedings in his role as Mr. Choy, a senior figure in one of London’s triads. Word from Joey’s employer, the owner of a Chinese restaurant, reaches him that this is a man who knows how to fight back, and before long Joey works for Mr. Choy and drives around the City doing dirty work with a poker face and receiving wads of cash that he ends up stuffing in his (rather, Damon’s) freezer.

Redemption‘s visual style is as muddled as its content. At various points, there are unexplained inserts of grainy footage taken from the perspective of a surveillance camera or a drone, and while the latter refers back to Joey’s time in Afghanistan, the visuals are too infrequent, too inconsequential and too inconsistent for the film to utilise them in an effective manner, and the connection to the events onscreen is tenuous at best. By contrast, compare the masterful inclusion of surveillance and other unconventionally obtained footage in David Ayer’s End of Watch.

Although more restrained than most other films starring Jason Statham, the film does not have the talent behind it to make the most of its Afghanistan setting nor the intelligence to increase the relevance of the drone shots. Statham is a calming presence in the middle of much that is directionless, but director Steven Knight would have to wait until his subsequent film, Locke, to redeem himself.

End of Watch (2012)

Cameras are everywhere in End of Watch, a gritty take on the genre of police drama set in the City of Angels.


David Ayer

David Ayer

Director of Photography:
Roman Vasyanov

Running time: 110 minutes

It’s all about the cameras. In End of Watch, a Los Angeles cop and his partner (sometimes in crime) patrol the city’s south side and have a lot to deal with, and police officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) decides to start passing the time by filming what the force does and how they do it.

This gimmick is not narratively grounded in some search for the truth behind the deeds; rather, it is all about participation, and the viewer doesn’t simply look at the events through the eye of Taylor’s camera but through multiple eyes, including those of surveillance cameras and helicopters flying high above the city.

The opening scene is shot from inside a police car, from the point of view of the dashboard camera that captures a chase, suddenly made vivid when the scene abruptly transitions from voiceover to very real-world sounds of racing through the backroads of a lower-class neighbourhood in South Central. When Taylor and his partner, Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), eventually catch up with the speeding perps, there is a shootout that ends with the runaways being shot dead, violently, in broad daylight.

Luckily, director David Ayer had the good sense not to limit his camera style to pocket-sized handheld, though we do get an awful lot of that. There are some significant problems with his choice of style at certain points in the film, top among these the music-video motif he employs during mass shootouts, undercutting the viewer’s feeling of being present at the scene of a crime.

Given the nature of the plot – large parts are connected not by story but by the central duo of Gyllenhaal and Peña, whose banter is lively, engaging and seemingly heartfelt – End of Watch‘s dependence on style is notable. However, save for the moments highlighted above, the approach and the composition of the film by means of precision editing ensure that the viewer never loses interest.

The actors were essential in this process, and their easy delivery of the lines makes for a very real feeling of camaraderie between them, a feeling that the filmmaker certainly counted on with the final moments in mind: The title refers to the death of a policeman, the end of his or her time on the beat.

Most of the day, Taylor and Zavala are out on the streets, driving from one end of their sector to the other, and spending that time talking about seemingly insignificant things that all end up tying them together as friends and partners. Making jokes about each other’s race (Taylor is white, Zavala is Hispanic) and the stereotypes that go along with the colour of their skins, they also talk about things more personal in their own lives, though the discussions are mostly limited to talk of either wives or girlfriends.

These friendly talks are woven into the situational structure of the screenplay, in which they respond to calls for help and follow their instincts, sometimes with good intentions but often with results that only demonstrate the problems produced by their unwillingness to be patient and let the law work itself out.

At times, End of Watch can be incredibly tense – a direct outcome of the film’s visual style. When Taylor and Zavala arrive at an empty house, the camera doesn’t show us any more than what the characters themselves can see. There are no surveillance cameras to warn them of imminent danger, and their (our) view is often obstructed by walls, doors and stairwells.

The process of joining the viewer to the camera is gradual, almost imperceptible, but during one of the film’s final scenes, the impact of having the images in front of us suddenly turn to noise is beyond words, as we realize what bond we have formed with the visuals and how close we have come to the situation and the characters depicted onscreen.

The film offers a novel approach to telling the story of policemen on the job, and, though End of Watch never soars to the level of Paul Haggis’s Crash, a project that also featured Peña, it certainly conveys the grittiness of being a cop and the fact that danger can lurk behind any corner. This is not a story about good cops and bad cops but about human beings who have to face not only the poverty of those they need to protect but also the inhumanity brought about by drugs and violence in a neighbourhood where these are often the only forms of stability.