The Shape of Water (2017)

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a stylish glimpse of an unusual love story set amid Cold War paranoia in Baltimore in 1962.

The Shape of WaterUSA
4*

Director:
Guillermo del Toro

Screenwriters:
Guillermo del Toro

Vanessa Taylor
Director of Photography:
Dan Laustsen

Running time: 120 minutes

The wonderful thing about fantasy films is that the bar of realism is set slightly lower than in most other stories. It’s not so much that the filmmaker can get away with more but that we relish the deviations from the strictures of reality, or realism, instead of criticising them. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is set in Baltimore in the early 1960s, in the midst of Cold War paranoia, with set design that is magnificent, rich in detail and full of colour, but the film is also indisputably a work of exuberant imagination.

We begin underwater inside an apartment filled with watery silence. A young woman is peacefully sleeping in mid-air (or, rather, mid-water) above a couch. At least, we tell ourselves she is only sleeping. The image is mesmerising, and it derives its power not from the visuals alone but also from the accompanying voiceover. The narrator, who will shortly reveal himself as the woman’s neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), asks us, “If I spoke about it… if I did… what would I tell you?” By framing the story through this voice-over and emphasising the act of telling, the film firmly establishes itself as a (narrative) tale.

The woman is Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), and she works as a janitor at the government-run Occam Aerospace Research Center, whose main goal seems to be to beat the Soviets at this whole space thing, although the film is light on details. Her best friend, whom she has worked with for a decade, is the garrulous Zelda (Olivia Spencer), who spends most days speaking enough to carry entire conversations all on her own. She has to, not only because Elisa is quite shy but because she is mute, and she has lifelong scars on the side of her neck to prove it.

One day, a giant water-filled container arrives at the research centre, and the many-starred military officials mention something about it being one of the most sensitive shipments they have ever received. It turns out to be an amphibious humanoid – a fish-man – that has the shape and size of a man but is covered in scales and has nictitating membranes, like windshield wipers, instead of normal eyelids. Most importantly, it doesn’t speak, although it does squawk.

Thus, rather predictably, Elisa and the creature strike up a relationship. She plays him music and even feeds him the eggs she packed for lunch. He shows very little caution and is almost immediately taken with her. The feeling is mutual. In a beautiful scene delivered in sign language to her neighbour, Elisa explains that, for the first time, lack of speech is not a “lack” at all. But she is not the only one to take an interest in the creature: By virtue of their own status as outcasts or outsiders (the mute Elisa, the gay Giles, the black Zelda and the Russia-born Dr Hoffstetler), a number of people around her are drawn to and sympathise with this foreigner par excellence.

With respect to these outsiders, the film gently sketches their hopes and dreams, with the exception of Zelda, whose race and its limited value in 1962 Baltimore are only superficially and indirectly implied, for example when others engage in casual racism. The most egregious behaviour in this regard is that of Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), an odious man who only washes his hands before using the bathroom and rapes his wife in a very icky scene that takes place in broad daylight. He is the menacing power figure who looks down on anyone who doesn’t look like him, whether they are women, blacks or scale-covered critters.

Del Toro’s light touches throughout the film ensure more than a passing guffaw. One of the most cited moments is bound to be Elisa’s recurring masturbation in the bath tub every morning, which alternates with shots of eggs boiling in hot water on the stove. And most scenes involving one of the centre’s highest-ranking scientists, Dr Robert Hoffstetler, are precariously balanced on a knife’s edge between seriousness and uproarious comedy thanks to the facial expressions of actor Michael Stuhlbarg. And whenever he meets with a foreign power, the passwords that are exchanged at the rendezvous have something Coen brothers-esque about them. 

The director is also particularly sly with his transitions, and one example is the cut from severed fingers being dropped into a bag to Corn Flakes poured from another bag for breakfast. The implicit connection grosses us out even as we acknowledge the purely abstract connection with a laugh.

Elisa and the Amphibian Man (played by Doug Jones), as the credits call him, grow closer and eventually engage in an obviously consensual moment of bestiality that will undoubtedly draw laughter at every screening. Their silent bond is unbreakable and beautiful, although an imaginary black-and-white song-and-dance number late in the film feels wholly out of place.

Something else that feels out of place is the amount of access that the low-ranking Elisa has to what is supposed to be the research centre’s prized possession. She visits her amphibious friend nearly every day without ever facing punishment for trespassing. Fantasy films loosen the restrictions on how we perceive their realism but not their credibility, particularly if the story is set in a real world–like environment. And these visits in The Shape of Water push plausibility beyond breaking point.

While the meaning of the title is not at all apparent, the visuals are stunning, and not since Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 Great Expectations has there been a film so focused on reminding us of the colour green. From the doors at the research centre and the punch clock time cards to Elisa’s dress, any number of items of furniture and, of course, the blueish shades of green in the water are ever-present and frame the tale as something out of the ordinary that vibrates vital energy.

There is no question this is the most solid piece of filmmaking that Guillermo del Toro has ever delivered, and while it is much more mature than your average fantasy film, it has the kind of magic that transports the adult viewer to a wonderland most often associated with nostalgia for childhood.

Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2017

Interstellar (2014)

Christopher Nolan’s big space epic tries to fly too close to the sun and fails to live up to expectations.

InterstellarUSA
3*

Director:
Christopher Nolan

Screenwriters:
Jonathan Nolan
Christopher Nolan
Director of Photography:
Hoyte van Hoytema

Running time: 170 minutes

Interstellar takes us farther than we’ve ever been before, but it doesn’t take the medium of film quite as far as this production’s marketing department would like to have us believe. Director Christopher Nolan breaks through the final frontier – not space, but time – and delivers a product that has a couple of moments of genius but is bloated and saddled with too much dialogue, not to mention a family drama right out of a freshman course on Steven Spielberg.

The film opens with an image we don’t yet understand: a close-up of a row of dusty book spines. This is followed by interviews with a few elderly individuals reminiscing about their childhood on farms, and then we get to see one of them: a corn field stretching as far as the eye can see. Perhaps this is a sly wink at Superman’s early years on the Kent family farm in Smallville (an indication that great things lie ahead), but there are no firm geographical markers. That doesn’t matter, anyway, because the film has its sights set much farther afield than the United States.

Primarily a science-fiction film preoccupied with stars, planets, worm and black holes, Interstellar is built on the very credible premise that, one day in the near future, the Earth runs dry, for reasons not explicitly stated, and mankind has to start looking elsewhere for its continued survival. With the help of his scientifically curious daughter, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an engineer who is making a living as a farmer, locates the headquarters of NASA, which ceased operations a long time ago because the country no longer saw the need to invest in science and space exploration.

The agency asks him to go into space and find a suitable planet whither humanity can be transported or where he could restart civilisation with a few hundred fertilised eggs. He gamely takes up the challenge and is accompanied on the journey by Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), the daughter of his former science teacher, while his own daughter throws a hissy fit because she cannot see the bigger picture and believes her father is abandoning her.

Compare this girl’s tantrums with the quiet determination of the budding scientist in Robert Zemeckis’s 1997 hit Contact, which incidentally also starred McConaughey, and it quickly becomes clear how little experience Nolan has directing children. The dialogue in general is also either overly explanatory or superfluous. In one scene, Cooper is told that the last thing people see before they die is their children’s faces, because it gives them a reason to hold on to life, and Nolan wastes no time in getting to us that point: Within five minutes, we have the scene we visualised just moments earlier, and the director doesn’t realise it would have been infinitely more powerful without the setup.

In one of its most effective tactics to speak to our emotions, Interstellar creates a time bomb: The exploration of space has to occur within a specific amount of time, lest Cooper never sees his children again because they would have aged too much. Here, at least, Nolan deploys the different time worlds of his film to great effect by adding a very human dimension to which the viewer can relate. However, why only one of Cooper’s children, and not both, is prioritised will leave many a viewer puzzled, especially when the daughter, Murphy, only has one bag of emotions.

What has been a major topic of discussion has been the film’s imagery, in particular the way in which a black hole is rendered, and Nolan and director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema certainly deserve kudos for their work in this regard. More than one-third of the film was shot on IMAX cameras, and when displayed on an IMAX screen, the size of the frame changes between widescreen (2.40:1) and IMAX’s full-screen (1.43:1) aspect ratios.

Following the example of his imaginative 2010 film Inception, Nolan continues to make visible his fascination with spherical images, as we see here in the worm hole scene and another interesting construction towards the end of the film. However, Nolan’s vision of space is melancholic, and we get nothing that can be compared to the beauty of a 2001: A Space Odyssey Stargate sequence.

On the contrary, the planets the crew finds are desolate, uninhabitable, inhospitable wastelands of nothingness, and it would be up to mankind to make these places home. That is a surprisingly arrogant perspective, but one to which the film constantly returns. If there is any beauty in space, we cannot see it, because Nolan keeps hitting us over the head with talk of man’s indomitable spirit to survive and to explore and to thrive wherever he goes or whatever he faces. This is all mighty close to humanist propaganda.

Furthermore, the story makes some enormous, unexplained jumps across narrative chasms. When Murphy spots tiny dunes on the floorboards in her room after a sandstorm, her father goes to work and finds the sequence corresponds to numbers in code. He somehow immediately realises the numbers refer to latitude and longitude coordinates, and he sets off to the mysterious location. How he makes this deduction, and with such certainty, especially after he had rejected Murphy’s apparently airy-fairy belief that there is a ghost in her room, is completely ignored by the screenplay.

Hans Zimmer’s score relies heavily on the sounds made by the organ, and at times the music is visceral and moving as it conveys a spiritual dimension equal to the grandeur and the mystery of the night sky. However, the silence that was so useful to Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is often missing from or spoiled by Interstellar, and at one point Nolan makes the unforgivable mistake of invasively adding some of McConaughey’s dialogue to an otherwise deadly silent shot of the outside of his module floating in outer space.

A particularly annoying aspect of the heavy talk that permeates the film is on full display in a scene in which Dr. Brand gushes about the need for love, as a way of exonerating herself and explaining her selfish decision to pursue a less scientific approach to the mission, which may very well lead to the deaths of her entire crew. This scene is absolutely cringeworthy, even though Nolan is using it to anticipate and perhaps even justify Cooper’s own behaviour in the last act.

Interstellar is no Gravity, and it doesn’t come close to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The opening interviews remove all suspense from the story by implying it all ends well, and the soppy, uninvolving family angle damages our ability to empathise fully with all the main characters. This may very well be a novel perspective on our place in the universe and our shared ability to survive no matter what, but just because Nolan can literally bend light to suit his needs does not mean his work is done.

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)

The first Star Wars trilogy comes to an end with a sputter in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, which aims much lower and takes far fewer risks than its predecessor.

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the JediUSA
3.5*

Director:
Richard Marquand

Screenwriters:
Lawrence Kasdan
George Lucas
Director of Photography:
Alan Hume

Running time: 130 minutes

This is one in a series of reviews including:
The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
– Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
Star Wars / A New Hope (Episode IV)
The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
The Force Awakens (Episode VII)

“Luke Skywalker has returned to his home planet of Tatooine in an attempt to rescue his friend Han Solo from the clutches of the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt.

Little does Luke know that the GALACTIC EMPIRE has secretly begun construction on a new armored space station even more powerful than the first dreaded Death Star.

When completed, this ultimate weapon will spell certain doom for the small band of rebels struggling to restore freedom to the galaxy….

The Ewoks are unduly demonised. These furry little koala-like creatures living on the forest planet of Endor and bubbling with curiosity may have very primitive tools at their disposal, but they quickly rally behind the rebels and ultimately help win the war against the Empire. They are harmless and act as a very effective manifestation of one of the metaphors that run through the franchise: They are the Davids to the Empire’s Goliath, especially as the monstrous Death Star II looms right above Endor. Contrary to their detractors’ assertions, they are not at all comparable to the pitiful Gungans of Episode I.

Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, the third and final film of the original trilogy, may have some of the worst special effects in the entire franchise and acting that is not quite up to snuff, but it gently winds down the story by answering important questions and slaying Luke Skywalker’s two primary nemeses: Darth Vader and the Emperor. Most importantly, it also shows the very real struggle inside Luke, who gets to face his sworn enemies and has to decide whether to yield to anger or not: “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

On the latter point, a return visit to Yoda, the source of this quotation, proves just as influential and revealing as Luke’s first interaction with the old Jedi master in the previous instalment. Self-deprecating and impish, Yoda is still the same delightful creature we know from earlier episodes. But this is the end of the road for him. His 900 years of existence have caught up with him now that he has set Luke on the path to realise his own potential and draw positive energy from the Force even as he confronts his inner demons:

“No more training do you require. Already know you that which you need … One thing remains: Vader. You must confront Vader. Then, only then, a Jedi will you be. And confront him you will.”

and

“Remember, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

He confirms that Vader is indeed Luke’s father, and before he literally dissolves into the afterlife he mentions that there is another Skywalker, who Obi-Wan confirms is Leia. Of course, this is the film that provides us with Leia’s most celebrated appearance in the franchise: Dressed in a skimpy bikini as crime lord Jabba the Hutt’s body servant, she is manacled next to him but ultimately uses the chains as a means to take sweet revenge.

When Jabba sentences Luke and Han to a grisly death by 1,000-year digestion inside the desert monster called the Sarlacc, we get to see the franchise’s worst special effects in action. In fact, the quality is so bad that even the most recent update to the instalment looks mediocre. Scenes in which the dunes of Tatooine whiz past in the background look like very bad blue screen work, and the visual compositions showing the Sarlacc’s gaping mouth of the Sarlacc (also known as the Pit of Carkoon) are mostly wide shots that make it look small, almost innocuous, and far from frightening.

Luckily, there are the Ewoks who pop up in the final act. They may look cuddly and are not particularly bright, but they do remind us of the goodness in the universe. And their emotions are pure and affecting, as we see them react with unmistakable sadness when any of them dies in battle. Such goodness, of course, is lacking (though not entirely) from Vader, who has to choose whether to side with his son or with the Emperor.

The film’s treatment of Vader is both surprising and deeply satisfying. We know he used to be Anakin Skywalker, but his mask is incredibly effective at dehumanising him. And yet, the mask is also a blank screen onto which we project our own desires. After Luke confronts his father by saying he still feels “the good” in him, the camera stays on Vader. We cannot see his face. We only hear his familiar and unsettling breathing. But we are almost certain that he is anxious and uncertain, that Luke has triggered real, previously suppressed emotions.

Episode VI‘s indisputable action highlight is the exhilarating chase scenes between the rebels and the Stormtroopers that take place at high speed among thick forest foliage. The film struggles to combat some second-rate effects shots, as it did in the Tatooine desert scenes in the first act, but the point-of-view and reverse POV shots of the speeder bikes more than make up for it and get the adrenaline pumping.

This being the final film of the trilogy, however, the screenwriters (and presumably, George Lucas) obviously assumed it should end with a great battle. This is wholly unnecessary, and the “big battle” is both overlong and on too small a scale to make much of an emotional impact. While Vader, Emperor Palpatine and Luke duke it out on the Death Star, Leia, Han, Chewie and the Ewoks are taking on the Stormtroopers on Endor. But both battles keep getting interrupted by the other, thus fracturing and destroying the inherent tension in the one and the anticipation in the other.

With the Emperor and Darth Vader dead and the Death Star destroyed (again), the Empire is no more, and the rebels have won. On Endor, Luke sees the Force spirits (or ghosts) of the three major Jedis: his father, Anakin, Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi. In the restorations since 1997, the final scenes show us celebrations across the galaxy, and in the versions released after the prequels, Anakin’s spirit curiously takes the form of Hayden Christensen rather than Sebastian Shaw.

This is definitely not on the same level as Episode V. The visual effects quality is inconsistent, the Leia–Han relationship has lost its comedic spark, and moments that should be intimate (like Leia recounting her memories of her birth mother, Padmé) are weighed down by dialogue so terrible it could have been written by Lucas himself: “She was very beautiful. Kind. But sad.” On the whole, the film plays it very safe as it moves inexorably towards its happy ending, but it certainly benefits from putting a neat bow on a story that would not continue for nearly 35 years with the release of Episode VII: The Force Awakens in 2015.

April’s Daughter (2017)

April’s Daughter manipulates us almost as well as its central character, whose charm wrecks the lives of everyone around her.

April's Daughter / Las hijas de AbrilMexico
4*

Director:
Michel Franco
Screenwriter:

Michel Franco
Director of Photography:
Yves Cape

Running time: 105 minutes

Original title: Las hijas de Abril

It should be “April’s Daughters”, plural, not “April’s Daughter” as the official English title would have us believe. The distinction is important because the daughters, plural, are important. In fact, there are three of them. But there is only one April, and thank god for that.

Set in the city of Puerto Vallarta on the exotic Mexican coastline, the story gives us the calm, then the storm that turns into a hurricane fast. April (played by Emma Suárez, who, the film never ceases to remind us, is in fact Spanish) is a single woman who looks younger than her biological middle age. She is full of life and in control of her own destiny, but she is living on her own, and her relationship with her two daughters is complicated. Then again, her two daughters seem to have their own share of problems.

In the opening scene, played for deadpan comedy, the elder daughter, Clara, who wears the same pyjama-like blouse throughout the entire film, is making breakfast. In the next room, her half-sister, Valeria, is having sex with her boyfriend, so loudly the walls are nearly shaking. The boyfriend is 17-year-old Mateo (the striking, curly-haired Enrique Arrizon), and their sex drive seemingly has not abated since they discovered Valeria is pregnant. Valeria asks her sister not to let their mother know about the pregnancy, but Clara doesn’t listen, and one night, April turns up at the house.

Seemingly generous and caring, April turns up at Valeria’s father’s house in Guadalajara to seek help, but he wants nothing to do with her. From the looks of it, he is just paranoid or overreacting, but we soon realise that April is a something of a sociopath as she turns into a busybody who wants to be in control of Valeria and, when the time comes, her daughter, too. Clara, who is all but catatonic throughout the entire film, offers no support to her sister and simply relents to whatever demand their mother makes. Both daughters’ inaction leads to April taking major decisions on their behalf, one of which is to have Valeria’s rights as a mother terminated.

April’s behaviour in this regard is bad enough, but then her libido kicks into overdrive. The object of her affection? Valeria’s boyfriend and baby daddy: Mateo. While not at all unexpected, this is a fascinating development because the young Mateo is so vulnerable. He is not married to Valeria, is barely out of school and still lives at home with parents who want nothing to do with raising their bastard granddaughter. Predictably, he lets April take control of the situation, as this relieves the pressure on him to be an adult, even if it means he has to sleep with his daughter’s grandmother. But in the process, this young man is thoroughly emasculated, a point that is driven home by the fact that, after just a few days or weeks of living with her, he can no longer get it up. 

While Clara, who runs a print shop, is a cipher who speaks little and does even less besides eating and smoking, the supposedly immature Valeria gradually comes into her own. This kind of growth (the only real development manifested by any of the five central characters), which lights the fuse of the fireworks in the film’s final act, grants the story a deeply satisfying conclusion. Her actions transcend revenge and highlight the superiority of her morality of that of those who stabbed her in the back.

With very little fanfare, director Michel Franco reveals some shocking behaviour on the part of April. But because all of this takes place in the middle of the summer under the glare of near-constant sunlight, it takes a while for the full scope of April’s wickedness to hit us in the face. The visuals, often single takes, draw little attention to themselves and let everything play out in real time without emphasis or acceleration.

This glimpse of a master manipulator (obviously, April, but also, not insignificantly, Michel Franco) is engrossing, even though there is little sign of character development beyond the kind Valeria undergoes against her will. The chill that Mateo’s parents exude and the webs in which April spins everyone around her with her charm are both comically absurd and shockingly diabolical. This volatile tone, along with Emma Suárez’s starring turn in the lead, offers an absorbing experience that takes us all over Jalisco and into Mexico City, where Valerie cuts the Gordian knot with the sword of a mama bear.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2017

Tom of Finland (2017)

Tom of Finland is a likeable but hastily drawn sketch of the Finnish soldier and artist whose work is responsible for many a gay man’s wet dreams.

Tom of FinlandFinland
3*

Director:
Dome Karukoski
Screenwriter:
Aleksi Bardy

Director of Photography:
Lasse Frank

Running time: 115 minutes

Pencil sketches of muscle men, leather uniforms and enormous penises. These works of art, long produced underground before finally making their way to gallery exhibits and then even onto a few of Finland’s stamps, are the creations of Touko Laaksonen. “Tom of Finland”, as he would later be known, came of age during the Second World War and put his fantasies on paper in order to forget about his miserable experiences as a soldier and as a man trapped in an ultra-conservative and very anti-gay society.

Some of the early scenes in Dome Karukoski’s Tom of Finland take place in Helsinki ahead of the 1952 Olympic Games and show the police clearing out a park that has become a popular cruising spot for the city’s gay community. When they catch men doing the old in-out against a tree trunk or kissing in the shadows of heavy foliage, they gang up to beat the victim with their truncheons until he can no longer offer any resistance. It is a chilling reminder of how backward and intolerant some Western societies were – and not long ago. Finland, where same-sex marriage only became possible in March 2017, had taken until 1971 to decriminalise homosexuality, although Tom of Finland (perhaps purposefully) neglects to tell us this and thus sketches a conservative Finnish society forever threatening to people like Laaksonen, portrayed by Pekka Strang.

Dome Karukoski’s biopic of arguably Finland’s most famous artist snaps from one narrative block to another as it scrambles to cram around four decades of life into two hours while pretending to take its time. The first 10 minutes alone cover four separate periods in Laaksonen’s life, and over time, we return to almost all of them in the same fitful, fragmentary manner.

The scenes have room to breathe, but the transitions between them are abrupt and often leave us scratching our heads about the missing amount of time. In addition, the two hours are rather awkwardly framed by a major leather event that, while it offers a powerful culmination and affirmation of Laaksonen’s life, feels rushed and tacked on without any proper groundwork.

There are very few narrative threads that cut across the entire film, although one of the most important (albeit, regrettably, one of the weakest) involves Laaksonen’s sister, Kaija, who never manages to accept his sexuality. Throughout their lives, she lives in bitter denial that homosexuality even exists. We gather that she wants to ignore the tragedy of her own life as a spinster by focusing on her brother’s life, even as he ends up spending most of it with a loving partner, Veli “Nipa” Mäkinen (played by the gorgeous Lauri Tilkanen).

Unlike in another biopic of a gay artist (Julian Schnabel’s glorious depiction of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in the inimitable Before Night Falls), the society portrayed in Tom of Finland is one of binary oppositions. The only person who does not fall neatly into the “gay = good”/”straight = menacing” categories is the quiet wife of an army captain who tolerates her husband’s meetings with other men. It is a real pity we do not get to see more of her, or of her kind, in this film.

As far as “Tom” himself is concerned, it remains unclear whether he ever feels like he fits in. Certainly, on his first trip to California, in the late 1970s, the warm weather and the men holding hands in public immediately signal a break from the frigid confines of Helsinki, where people still give him a dirty look if he is too intimate with Nipa. Towards the end of his life, Nipa has a persistent cough, and although his death is ultimately ascribed to throat cancer, the film’s ambiguity suggests he was very likely an early victim of the as yet undiagnosed AIDS virus.

Laaksonen, whose graphite sported members the size of baseball bats, also had a thing for leather, but we never get any indication of where this fixation originated. Perhaps it goes back to his early focus on men in uniforms, although we can’t be sure. His muse, a leather-clad biker with a prominent moustache and a police cap, is the imaginary Kake (Niklas Hogner), who becomes a central character in his work. Laaksonen says he is only satisfied with his own work if it makes him hard, but we never see him hot and bothered, even in the company of an imagined Kake, nor, for that matter, do we see anyone else getting horny from his pictures. This is a truly mystifying omission, as the film would have benefitted immensely from showing how Tom of Finland’s works offered pleasure to the gay community at large – or to himself.

Tom of Finland is more a patchwork of moments in the title character’s life than an engaging story of his life, his struggles and his motivations. By the end of the film, we still don’t know much about him, and while his Second World War trauma revisits him from time to time, these flashbacks are too scattered and superficial to add much to our understanding of his emotions. Karukoski’s film is unprovocative and doesn’t dig very deep. And although we get one or two vague notions of the life of a ground-breaking artist, the story leaves us unaffected.

Milada (2017)

First biopic of Milada Horáková, who resisted the Nazis but was executed by the communists in Czechoslovakia, is an utter disappointment.

MiladaCzech Republic
2.5*

Director:
David Mrnka

Screenwriters:
David Mrnka
Robert J. Conant
Robert Gant

Director of Photography:
Martin Štrba

Running time: 125 minutes

Milada is about one of the most heroic characters of the 20th century and among her native Czechoslovakia’s most tragic figures under the country’s decades-long totalitarian rule. Filmmakers had avoided telling her story for a long time, but nearly 70 years after a show trial staged by the country’s communist regime and a decade after new footage of the excruciatingly biased nine-day trial was discovered, we finally have a film meant to share the full story with us. It is painful to watch – but for all the wrong reasons.

The film depicts nearly two decades in the life of Milada Horáková, an outspoken Czechoslovak lawyer who came of age at the same time as her country and was active in the resistance during Nazi occupation. Despite an initial death sentence, she was eventually imprisoned until the end of the war and elected to the Constituent National Assembly, but after the communist coup in February 1948, which she vehemently and vocally opposed, she was arrested and ultimately executed.

And yet, despite its basis in real life, Milada is an atrocious piece of filmmaking. First-time director David Mrnka clearly made an effort with period costumes, but whether because of a lack of money, of creativity, or of filmmaking experience (likely all of the above), the film commits one sin after another.

At a very basic level, the transitions between scenes are laughable. Mrnka seems to believe he has only two tools at his disposal: the spinning newspaper headline (to provide wider historical context, the way films did at the time) and the fade-out (to indicate the passage of anything from hours to years). Both of these processes are sorely overused and suggest an editor asleep behind the console.

The intention was never to borrow filmmaking techniques that were in use in the 1930s and 1940s, however, as we get five almost identical sequences of Horáková’s family in the car in 1948/1949, driving along the same road in the Czech countryside to visit family close to the border, while many of the shots are obtained by drone. Now, obviously, drones have no business in a historical film unless they are used, as in Milada’s final minutes, in the context of a shot whose existence is not tied to a specific moment in time. The use of the drone – not one, but FIVE times – is nauseating, onanistic and entirely inappropriate.

There is little to say about the copious use of the fade-out – a shake of the head and a deep eye-roll will suffice. But sometimes the fade-outs are so obtrusive that they terminate a scene before its emotional climax. The scene in which Milada is taken away by the State Security is staged in such a way that her husband, Bohuslav Horák, watches her being driven away as he hides behind a corner. When the car passes, we get a point-of-view shot from inside the car, which implies Milada sees Bohuslav’s shocked face. But before we get a reverse shot from Bohuslav’s POV, the editor presses the “fade out” button, ending the scene prematurely and completely forgoing a shot that would have taken our breath away.

Ayelet Zurer, an Israeli actress with a Czechoslovakia-born mother, stars in the lead. The entire cast is made to speak in a Czech-inflected English, but only the Czech players can do this convincingly. In addition, Zurer likely didn’t have enough time to prepare, as her accent is not only generally bad but also inconsistent: Sometimes within a single sentence she can’t decide whether to roll her r’s or to pronounce them the American way (Czech only has rolled/trilled r’s). Other non-Czech actors also struggle mightily with the accent, and Robert Gant, who plays Bohuslav, settles on something akin to a Russian accent, which, considering that his character is wholly opposed to Soviet influence, is very unfortunate.

Even the bookends, which feature Horáková’s daughter, Jana, collecting her late mother’s letters to her from the newly elected democratic government shortly after the collapse of communism, miss the mark completely. We are told that Jana fled to Washington, D.C., in 1968, where she has lived since then. And yet, when actress Taťjana Medvecká speaks English, there is not even a hint of an American accent in her speech; on the contrary, the accent is entirely oriented towards British English.

But what is most jarring in this production is the lack of introductions to major characters. Jan Masaryk, the son of Czechoslovakia’s founding father and a long-time diplomat, is shown on the night of what is widely assumed to be his murder (although oddly enough, the film presents his death in a very ambiguous way). But he is barely introduced, and those unfamiliar with Czech history are unlikely to know what or whom they are looking at. Other characters, from Alois Schmidt, who appears to be an associate of Horáková’s, to the callous state prosecutor Ludmila Brožová-Polednová, right up to the slightly comical Prime Minister Klement Gottwald, are either not introduced by name or sketched so superficially that the uninitiated will struggle to understand their role in the events.

Most bizarrely, Horáková’s alleged co-conspirators appear out of nowhere at the trial. We have never seen them before, and we can easily assume she had never met them before, but that is not historically accurate. The film ignores the fact that five of them had the same party affiliation as her. Nonetheless, there is absolutely no contact – not even a sympathetic or a fearful glance exchanged – between them.

Finally, the staging of the show trial does not make anything dramatic of the vulnerable position in which Horáková is placed: a slightly raised podium in front of a long row of judges and Communist Party officials, where the defendant is made to stand awkwardly in full public view. There is no creativity to the camerawork or the composition of the visuals. Instead, we basically get a colourised version of the original television footage. 

Perhaps the only thing Milada does right is to suggest that, in some respects, the communists were far worse than the Nazis. This comparison remains a sore point in present-day Czech society. Nazis, and Germans more generally, were thrown out of the country after the Second World War; by contrast, the communists stayed and remained part of society after the collapse of their regime. But when we learn that Milada Horáková was allowed to see her family when she was imprisoned by the Nazis, while the Communists refused any and all contact, it is impossible to ignore the contrast. The film’s courage to speak the truth in this regard is commendable.

Despite the exemplary life and tragic death of its titular character, the film is an utter failure. It provides a vague outline of events, but the myriad fade-outs are simply farcical, and the mediocre performances and the badly structured narrative keep us at arm’s length from the flow of history that should have swept us off our feet.

Tambylles (2012)

By deliberately avoiding all forms of confrontation, this very uneven hourlong graduation film turns its main character’s already undramatic existence into rigid stasis.

TambyllesCzech Republic
2*

Director:
Michal Hogenauer

Screenwriters:
Michal Hogenauer

Markéta Jindřichová
Director of Photography:
Adam Stretti

Running time: 58 minutes

Tambylles (a title that translates as Therewasaforest), a one-hour film that Michal Hogenauer made as his FAMU graduate film, is as uncomfortable to watch as its main character, an anonymous young guy from a small Czech town who has recently been released from a juvenile detention centre. Stripped down to very minimalist scenes and a lead actor who always has to contain his emotions, this film is not particularly viewer-friendly.

At first, we seem to be watching a documentary: An increasingly annoying filmmaker is interviewing people and asking persistent, provocative questions. But slowly, as the credibility of the staging becomes more and more suspicious, we realise this is a film within a film, with the fictional filmmaker presented inside more static, well-composed images. Luckily for us, director Hogenauer’s preoccupation with form is done away with more or less as soon as this fictional filmmaker’s attempts to provoke confrontation fail to deliver and he leaves the central plot.

These well-composed images are certainly one of the highlights of the experience of watching Tambylles, although I found myself tuning out very often because there is so little to tune into. Though the fictional filmmaker tried to construct the first 15 minutes of the film in a way so every interview is interrupted in order to create a cliffhanger, our anticipation constantly heightened, we find out very little about the central character and the events that sent him to the Big House. “Everyone one should know what he did”, says one character. Yes, they should, but what is it?

Given the fact this central character says so very little, becomes more and more isolated from society and from us and isn’t even given a name, he does not represent something universal – rather, he fades out in every scene to which he is supposed to bring some substance, or interest.

Nonetheless, actor Ivan Říha has captivating eyes that pull the viewer toward the screen. Despite his character’s visible solitude, a completely unbelievable domestic situation – not just the lack of chemistry between him and his parents but a lack of any feeling whatsoever – and a lack of much to hold on to in terms of character traits, we certainly want to find out more, and he offers the promise of something more. Unfortunately, he never fulfils that promise.

It is difficult to become involved in the development of a film that is going nowhere. We keep waiting for confrontations that Hogenauer instead chooses to avoid. The confrontation (provoked by the fictional filmmaker) between him and the mother of his victim is wordless and actionless; the confrontation between him and the fictional filmmaker consists of him grabbing the camera and storming off, though this action is elided by means of a cut; the confrontation between him and his boss, who discovers his secret, is avoided when he storms off, again; and a final suicidal confrontation is shown without any sound.

Minimalism is one thing, but deliberate obstinance is another. Říha’s face (the only thing the character has going for him) can only interest us for a limited time, and that time is much shorter than the film’s 58-minute length.

Hogenauer shows great promise with his camera, but the images he creates cannot inspire us to sympathise with a character who encounters resistance everywhere he goes. Moreover, we have no real clue about his past and don’t get an insight into his feelings in the present. Along the way, a character played by Hogenauer himself steals away the girl who might have brought this guy out of his shell. A fitting metaphor.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

Episode VII: The Force Awakens, the first of three new Star Wars films, offers new hope for a brand tarnished by George Lucas’s prequels by hewing close to the original trilogy.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force AwakensUSA
4*

Director:
J.J. Abrams

Screenwriters:
Lawrence Kasdan

J.J. Abrams
Michael Arndt
Director of Photography:
Dan Mindel

Running time: 135 minutes

This is one in a series of reviews including:
The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
– Star Wars / A New Hope (Episode IV)
– The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)

“Luke Skywalker has vanished. In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed.

With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE. She is desperate to find her brother Luke and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy.

Leia has sent her most daring pilot on a secret mission to Jakku, where an old ally has discovered a clue to Luke’s whereabouts….”

“Luke Skywalker has vanished”, declares the first line of the opening crawl in the early moments of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The text that sets the scene follows the same pattern as in all previous instalments — we get full names, even if the characters are familiar to most of us, and the sentences are presented as three short paragraphs — but that is not where the similarities end.

In fact, in numerous respects, this latest episode was clearly made with the Star Wars fan in mind. Unlike the unmitigated disaster that was most of the “prequel trilogy” (episodes I through III, released 1999–2005 under the direction of series creator George Lucas), Episode VII is cut from the same cloth as the original trilogy, and not just because it uses wipes to transition between scenes. The events may be set decades into the future, and our friends have become old, but this is still the same galaxy, and even the narrative takes its blueprint from the first film, released in 1977 as Star Wars and subsequently titled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

In broad strokes, without revealing too much, the plot revolves around the quest to locate Luke, the last remaining Jedi in the galaxy. To this end, characters like Han Solo, Leia and Chewbacca make a return, which is no surprise, as they have featured prominently in the trailers. They join up with some novices, including a disillusioned Stormtrooper, FN-21871 or “Finn” (a mostly winsome but sometimes overly enthused John Boyega), and a young woman named Rey (an absolutely stunning turn by Daisy Ridley) who lives in solitude in the desert landscape of Jakku.

Their enemy is the force that has replaced the former Empire and calls itself First Order, led by a physically towering individual, at least from the looks of his hologram, titled Snoke (created by motion-capture performer Andy Serkis), who serves as the order’s supreme leader. His apprentice is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who with his black cloak and facemask resembles the man he adulates: the original trilogy’s villain, Darth Vader. Ren’s origin story is one of the film’s big twists, and its shock value almost rivals that of the narrative reveal in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, namely the relationship between Luke and Darth Vader.

The screenplay, co-written by director J.J. Abrams along with Episode V scribe Lawrence Kasdan and Little Miss Sunshine writer Michael Arndt, marks a pleasant departure from the Lucas tradition of bad sci-fi screenwriting. While the opening line of the series in Episode I was the detached and uninspiring “Captain … tell them we wish to board at once”, Episode VII gives us Max von Sydow as Lor San Tekka, an elder on Jakku who is helping the resistance. We meet him and the young pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) in the middle of the night at a secret meeting where Tekka speaks the first words while handing Poe a small object: “This will begin to make things right.”

In a way, Tekka’s words are applicable to the entire film, which obviously sought to right the ship after Lucas had tarnished his own brand, and Episode VII’s determination to stay close to the original trilogy pays off handsomely. The desert planet of Jakku calls to mind Luke’s home planet of Tatooine; the inside of a bar on Takodana, a planet so verdant it leads Rey to exclaim she never knew there existed so much green in the entire galaxy, looks a lot like the notorious Mos Eisley cantina from Episode IV; and the First Order’s callous, indiscriminate annihilation of entire planets obviously references the Death Star’s destruction of Princess Leia’s Alderaan.

And speaking of Leia, who is now a general, actress Carrie Fischer’s scenes with Harrison Ford — who reprises his role as Han, the galactic cargo smuggler and proud pilot of the Millennium Falcon — have a breathtaking poignancy to them that nonetheless eschews easy sentimentality. Naturally, those who are familiar with the original trilogy will take away much more from these scenes than those who are not, but the honesty of the characters and their deep connection to each other make for some of the most powerful moments in the entire film.

The two other characters whose return is much anticipated are the two droids, C3PO and R2D2, although even diehard fans would be hard-pressed to ignore the loveable new addition, BB-8, which consists of an orange ball that rolls and acts as the “body”, with a small, mobile, domelike structure on top that functions as the head. It is an astonishing feat that we sometimes forget that this droid is merely a machine, and even though it does not have any facial expressions, its sounds and movements are enough to communicate exactly what it is “feeling”.

Whether the faces we see belong to humans, droids or other creatures we recognise from earlier instalments, the moments in which they are revealed are as striking as they should be. It is like a quick blow to the chest when you unexpectedly see an old friend again, and even the appearance of the Millennium Falcon will have this effect on the viewer who watches the film as a longtime fan.

In general, as Abrams did with his reboot of the Star Trek franchise, the action appears to zip along at a much more dynamic pace than was the case with the original films, admittedly made for a pre-MTV, non-ADHD generation. There is never a dull moment in this film, and even the rare examples of less-than-stellar dialogue or overacting, usually featuring Boyega, are kept to a minimum.

This episode is better than at least three (some might even say all four) of the episodes that Lucas directed, and it is a very robust work of entertainment, but newcomers might be a little nonplussed at all the fuss. It remains to be seen how the two subsequent episodes, scheduled for release in 2017 and 2019, will develop the setup that culminates here in an unforgettable cliffhanger.

Those who were mumbling “I have a bad feeling about this” had no reason to worry.

The Little Prince (2015)

This unusual adaptation of French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s widely read and beloved The Little Prince is intelligent, funny and deeply moving.

Little PrinceFrance
4.5*

Director:
Mark Osborne

Screenwriters:
Irena Brignull

Bob Persichetti
Directors of Photography:
Adel Abada

Kris Kapp

Running time: 110 minutes

Stories about father figures are nothing new, nor are stories about father figures who teach young girls about the world (just consider Jostein Gaarder’s masterful compendium of 3,000 years of philosophy in the novel Sophie’s World). However, when such a story is obliquely infused with critical insights about culture, religion and the magic of childhood thanks to a beloved novella that is equally accessible to children and adults, the result can be overwhelming.

Director Mark Osborne took up the burden of adapting the 70-year-old, 100-page-long novella, which continues to rank among the most-read and bestselling works in the world, for the big screen. An added challenge, beyond merely adding movement to the pictures and breathing physical life (and voice) into the words of the author, the late Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was that the original work would only comprise half of the final film’s narrative. Overcoming the sceptics, the director of Kung Fu Panda and a handful of SpongeBob SquarePants episodes has produced a stirring glimpse of childhood and of growing up that will amuse younger viewers and captivate elder viewers alike with light-hearted entertainment informed by the melancholia-tinged savvy of the original text.

Unexpectedly, the main character is not a young prince nor a mature aviator but a little girl who fittingly resembles Dora the Explorer. Following Saint-Exupéry’s lead, none of the characters have names (except for the all-important “Mr. Prince” in the final act) and instead bear descriptive titles such as “Little Girl”, “Mother”, “Fox”, “Aviator” and, of course, “The Little Prince”.

The Little Girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy, who starred as the daughter of Matthew McConaughey’s character in Interstellar, another star-struck feature) lives with her mother, a very serious auditor, in a nondescript city. Her father sends her the same snow globe containing a skyscraper for her birthday every single year. We can assume that both parents want their daughter to end up in some capacity as a successful worker, and therefore Little Girl is on the road to join the prestigious, strait-laced Werth Academy, where everyone is asked to work toward being “essential”. After a disastrous enrolment interview, Little Girl’s mother lays out a stringent plan for the summer holiday, during which any of her daughter’s free time will be minimal and limited to essential activities, such as eating and exercise.

Mother and daughter move in next to a dilapidated house, the scourge of the planned community where everyone wears the same greyscale-coloured outfits, whispers in very hushed tones about their neighbours and seem to be about as far removed from the exuberance and spontaneity of childhood as possible. The house, it turns out, belongs to the Aviator (voiced by Jeff Bridges), an eccentric, old man who represents both Saint-Exupéry and his alter ego creation, the aviator of his novella, and also calls to mind the grumpy but lovable Carl Fredricksen of the magnificent animation film Up.

Before long, just like philosopher Alberto Knox in Sophie’s World, the Aviator starts sending the Little Girl pages of text containing the aphorisms and adventures of the Little Prince, and thus begins a subversive but thrilling adventure that helps the child, quickly on her way to becoming an “adult”, reconnect with and hang on to her childhood impulses as long as possible.

From time to time, these pages turns into animations, and the effect of seeing a formerly static character come to life in front of our eyes will certainly bring a shiver to most viewers familiar with the novella. We see the Little Prince cleaning his tiny planet, trying to rid it of invasive baobab seeds and falling in love with a rose, here perfectly voiced by Marion Cotillard. He flees the Rose’s ever-increasing demands on his time and ends up on Earth, where he meets the aviator and learns valuable nuggets of wisdom from the fox, including the famous quotation, “It is the time you have lost for your rose that makes your rose so important”.

This story with the Little Prince is interwoven with the story of the Little Girl, and by using one text to inform another, Osborne also suggests that tales from many decades ago can continue to educate us about ourselves and inspire us to see the beauty of life instead of letting the rat race consume our energy and destroy our imagination. The focus throughout the story is that, as the smiling Aviator reminds us, “Growing up is not the problem; forgetting is”.

Although ostensibly created for children, animated films have developed to the point where something like The Little Prince can be entertaining for young ones and deeply moving for their parents, or anyone scared they might no longer be a child. There are multiple layers to this story, and those who know Saint-Exupéry’s tale well are just as likely to enjoy it as those who come to the film without any knowledge about the prince, the fox, the rose or the aviator. There is a beautiful message about religion (in the form of the rose), a melancholy background of absence, a rousing theme of friendship and a dramatic struggle against forgetting, which is a struggle for remembering.

We should always see the world through the eyes of a child, but more importantly, we should view life with the same sense of curiosity and fascination, perhaps even naiveté, that reconnects us with our younger selves, just like this film connects the old with the new in a tidy package that is invigorating, inspirational and intrepid depiction of a story we thought we knew, but which hits us twice as hard when the characters start to speak and the drawings start to move.

Wind River (2017)

When a young Native American girl is found dead and barefoot in the snow inside the Wind River reservation, her death brings back terrible memories for one officer whose daughter met a similar fate years earlier.

Wind RiverUSA
3.5*

Director:
Taylor Sheridan
Screenwriter:
Taylor Sheridan

Director of Photography:
Ben Richardson

Running time: 110 minutes

Everything the characters in Taylor Sheridan’s début feature film, Wind River, do happens against the backdrop of crushing whiteness. Even in spring, snow is ubiquitous inside the expansive Wind River Indian Reservation, which is more than twice the size of Rhode Island and located in the middle of Wyoming. And besides the handful of Indians (Native Americans) living off the land and according to their own rules and often abusing alcohol or harder drugs, the demographic landscape is as white as the physical one. Officially, the reservation is Indian territory, but the most gruesome things here are inevitably inextricably linked to the more powerful white population.

The opening scene is enough to send a chill down our collective spines. A young woman, visibly terror-stricken, is running through the snow barefoot as she tries to get away from something we can’t see. It is dark, and she is exhausted, but she keeps running, until she inhales the cold night air but exhales only blood. We never see anyone, or anything chase her.

The following day, by pure luck, a wildlife officer and professional hunts find her corpse as he tracks a puma that has been killing a nearby farmer’s steer and bringing its young along to teach them how to hunt. Although he is white, the officer, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), knows the reservation like the back of his hand and has a child with a Native American. We soon learn another child, his daughter, had died under similar circumstances a few years earlier. This is federal land and not under his jurisdiction, but he focuses his attention on solving this mystery of the barefoot woman, named Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille).

The autopsy reveals that Natalie died from a pulmonary haemorrhage, just as Cory had suspected. But more shockingly, we also learn that Natalie had likely been raped shortly before dying in the snow. Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a fish-out-of-water FBI agent used to much warmer climes, is sent to investigate, as the bureau has jurisdiction in the case of a homicide on the reservation.

Unlike in Sicario, however, which Sheridan also wrote, the female character is not the prime focus. Women and their grim prospects on the reservation are an unmistakable undercurrent, but Cory’s silent struggle to cope with the loss of his daughter intelligently informs the way in which this plot develops. He may be a white character, but the death of his own daughter is no less important than Natalie’s death is to her father, Martin (Gil Birmingham).

The stern but soft-spoken Martin turns out to be one of Wind River‘s star attractions. The first time we meet him, he is very reluctant to share any of his thoughts or emotions with Jane, who is a stranger to the area. The atmosphere inside his house is cold, and all her attempts to gather information are fruitless. But then Cory arrives, and Martin’s tough façade suddenly crumbles. The entire scene offers a masterclass in gradually revealing the layers of emotion that can be hidden just beneath the surface but require the right person to draw them out.

This is a tight-knit community dealing with many problems relating to poverty and the lack of prospects all the way from cradle to (usually, an early) grave, and with a local police force of just six officers patrolling an area thousands of square kilometres in size, many crimes, from petty to gruesome, tend to fall through the cracks. Wind River is loosely based on a true story but is more effective if viewed from farther away, as a closing title card underscores how little the United States’ justice system thinks of its original peoples: Crime statistics are not compiled on the number of Native American women who go missing every year.

One big mistake the film makes is on the level of form: Towards the end of the film, it provides us with the point of view of an odious rapist. For a few inexplicable seconds, we see events from his perspective, which makes absolutely no sense in the context of this otherwise cautious and respectful production.

On the whole, however, Wind River‘s heart is in the right place. It surprises us in subtle ways and tells us its characters are complex, even if we don’t necessarily get to see what this complexity entails. A flashback towards the end of the film is gruesome but reveals that one individual is much more sensitive than others had said, which underscores the importance of digging for the truth. And the truth is that Native Americans in the United States, a little more than 100 years after the Congress rejected the idea of allowing the proposed Indian state of Sequoyah to join the Union, continue to be treated as a matter of the fringe. This has to be remedied if the country is ever going to be serious about forming a more perfect Union.