The Butler (2013)

Real-life story of White House butler struggles to make us connect with historic moments.

The ButlerUSA
2.5*

Director:
Lee Daniels

Screenwriter:
Danny Strong

Director of Photography:
Andrew Dunn

Running time: 130 minutes

The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines, a black man who served as butler in the White House in the second half of the 20th century, and the landmark events he witnessed with almost unfettered access to the corridors of power.

Opening on a cotton plantation in the 1920s, we see the young Cecil’s mother being dragged to a shed by the white landowner, and as she screams and the many workers around pretend not to hear anything, for fear of retribution, we cringe. The film certainly evokes some powerful moments from the tainted history of the United States, but we also cringe because the roles of the landowner, the young Cecil and his mother all seem so incredibly simplistic and wholly lacking in complexity.

Luckily, Vanessa Redgrave shows up. She stars as the landowner’s mother, and while she is an old white woman with obvious power to wield over her slaves, she leaves the dirty business to her son. Meanwhile, she attends to the needs of the young Cecil, who – his mother having become emotionally unstable after the rape and his father having been shot because he (more or less tacitly) condemned the treatment of his wife – is turned into a servant in the mansion.

Redgrave’s appearance is brief but satisfying, as we plainly see her being slightly conflicted by devotion to the boy’s well-being while also conscious of the as yet unbridgeable divide between them because of the colour of their skin.

The rest of the film, however, is a terrible let-down. Instead of focusing on Gaines’ emotional and intellectual journey from a plantation to the White House, from the South to Washington, D.C, the film flashes through many pivotal moments in the nation’s history without showing how they affect his way of thinking, leaving us to believe he is unaffected by the societal tremors that shake the country, the result of Selma, the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Panthers and the presidents of the United States.

The tension could have been an interesting one: Gaines (played as an adult by Forest Whitaker) is a man who wants to provide for his family, and he has a genuine skill, namely to serve and to serve well, but is he betraying his own people, many of whom are dying in Alabama and Mississippi and across the country as they stand up against intolerance?

Like Helen Mirren’s character, Mrs. Wilson, in Gosford Park, he knows when the president will be hungry, and he knows when the president will be tired, perhaps even before the presidents knows it himself. But he learned a long time ago that he is a black man in a white house, and that he was not hired to contribute or interfere with politics.

His son, who goes to school in the Deep South around the time of the civil rights revolution, has a very different idea, and he is constantly at odds with his father’s apparent passivity in the face of continued injustice. But given how little we actually see of a movement toward racial equality on the side of the presidency, with the possible exception of Kennedy (even Lyndon B. Johnson’s role is downplayed), we cannot understand why Gaines sticks up for his white masters with such foolhardy narrow-mindedness. He may be frustrated with his son’s tactics, but why do we get the feeling he pooh-poohs the strategy, too? Gaines never offers an alternative to his son’s idea to be a Freedom Rider or to sit at a lunch counter where only whites are served.

It cannot be overstated how simple the film is, how predictable every single scene is, or how little we learn about the slow march toward full equality (underlined by the inevitable scenes with Barack Obama’s 2008 election at the end of the film), particularly the painfully slow awakening of Gaines’ own civil rights conscience. Daniels’ attempts to get us closer to the character by having him speak to us throughout are unsuccessful and on the contrary become rather irritating.

The Butler’s screenplay surely presented producers with an easy opportunity to tell a story that was rather uninteresting but whose context of inequality between the races is still valid today despite the Obama epilogue. James Marsden is charming and clearly inquisitive as John F. Kennedy, Jane Fonda is delicious as Nancy Reagan (although a large swath of the United States is bound to be furious with this casting decision), and Gaines’ son Louis is visibly tortured by what he sees as his duty to fight for equality even though his father is serving some of the cream of the political hypocrites.

The insight into Gaines’ character is minimal, as he seems to be isolated from the tides of history breaking on his doorstep for most of the duration of the film. Given that director Lee Daniels is both black and gay, we frankly would have expected him to tell a story about persecution with much more intimacy and understanding instead of merely reciting the vague outlines of history that skim over decades of important events without pausing to take in their meaning and significance.

The Butler is a crude depiction of U.S. history and actually diminishes the many landmark achievements of its civil rights heroes.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Caught between the Scylla of returning to face a tragic past and the Charybdis of living a frustrating present, Lee Chandler assesses the path forward in Kenneth Lonergan’s deeply affecting Manchester by the Sea.

Manchester by the SeaUSA
4*

Director:
Kenneth Lonergan
Screenwriter:
Kenneth Lonergan
Director of Photography:
Jody Lee Lipes

Running time: 135 minutes

In his third cinematic meditation on loss, Kenneth Lonergan boldly interweaves two parts of storyline with devastating effect to create a rich tapestry of events in the past that explain, insofar as it is possible to explain flesh-and-blood people, the sombre emotional mood in the present. Manchester by the Sea is in no hurry to unpack all the emotional baggage. But the deliberate rhythm helps the viewer to digest the immensity of the trauma that stretches many years of heartache and to comprehend, if not always empathise with, the central character and his stunted reactions to the world around him.

Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a janitor whose face shows little sign of life. He is currently living in Quincy, a city that falls under the Greater Boston area in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In the film’s early scenes, we learn about as much about him as we will until the halfway mark. He fixes the plumbing in a few apartment blocks but has no social compass to guide him in conversations with the tenants. He barely interacts with the people around him. He goes to bars to drink and not to pick up women. And more often than not, he ends the night by getting into a fight with a total stranger.

But throughout this dour introduction, we hold on to the relatively optimistic opening scene, in which Lee, his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), and Joe’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), are out on a boat. Joe is steering, while Lee is horsing around with his nephew, playfully comparing himself with his Joe and being a happy-go-lucky uncle.

But there is something eery about that opening scene. Besides the lack of any close-ups of the action and the characters, the boat, advancing as it does, looks almost static because the camera is moving at exactly the same speed. Our mind tells us there is movement, but the boat’s immutable composition dead in the centre of the frame makes us question our eyes. This is the perfect shot to kick off a film whose power lies in its gradual disclosure of the distinction between immediate and remembered events. Films, even those depicting events long ago, create an illusion of immediacy with the greatest of ease. Without any visual or audio markers to the contrary, the viewer is most likely to assume that any scene takes place in the film’s “present”, but with this shot Lonergan tips his hand, reinforcing both the artistry and the authenticity of the film.

We soon learn that this opening scene is set in the past. It is a memory. A few scenes (and many years) later, Lee learns that Joe has just passed away from congestive heart failure. He sets off to the hospital in the seaside town of Manchester by the Sea, where his awkward interactions with people he seemingly knows rather well immediately draw our attention. And then we get another flashback, set a few years earlier in the same hospital, when Joe learned his time on Earth would be much shorter than he had expected.

There will be many more flashbacks throughout the film. Some will seem happy; others will be devastating. At times, they appear to be traces of simpler times. At other times, they bring back hidden pain and sadness with the force of a sledgehammer. In retrospect, they are all tinged with sincere humanity but also an overwhelming melancholia.

For nearly half the film, Lonergan holds his narrative cards close to his chest. Lee learns his brother’s will designates him as guardian of the teenage Patrick. Lee, who views Manchester with a heavy heart because of all the death it has wrought on his family, wants no part in being Patrick’s caretaker father and has no desire to stay longer in town than necessary. The director gradually reveals the immense tragedy at the core of Lee’s character not as a stream but as a trickle that slowly brings to light the reasons for the present-day misery. But even the presentation has layers to it, and Lonergan’s film is nothing if not an onion that keeps peeling, continuously bringing the characters and the viewer closer to tears.

Halfway through the film, Kenneth Lonergan makes one absolutely inexcusable mistake: He injects himself into his film in the wrong way. Lonergan has had cameos in all of his films to date. In his début feature, the sublime You Can Count on Me, which might just be one of the best films of the past few decades, he starred as a priest, a role in which his deadpan discussion of fornication with a member of his congregation was one of many simultaneously serious and deeply comical highlights. In Margaret, he makes three short appearances at the other end of a telephone line as the lead character’s father. Displaying an awkwardness unmatched by any of his other roles, Lonergan’s trio of scenes traces the decline of a relationship but are overindulgent.

In Manchester by the Sea, the director shows up as a bystander on the street who loudly questions Lee’s parenting skills. This moment is harmless enough, but when Lonergan leaves, a separate shot shows the camera momentarily following him – an anonymous, peripheral character who never shows up again – before a cut back to Lee and his nephew, Patrick. This reeks of narcissism at best and incompetence at worst.

Although more bold than Margaret, this 135-minute examination of the way in which tragedy’s tentacles continue to leech happiness from the present is not a challenging film to watch and inspires little desire to be watched a second time. Lonergan deserves ample praise for making his flashbacks so unobtrusive and for tying them so firmly – yet initially inconspicuously – to the present-day narrative.

Time does not heal all wounds. We don’t forget the worst things that have befallen us. But while we mourn, the world is changing. And when we suddenly allow ourselves to open our eyes, perhaps the new configuration of people and relationships might just appear slightly more manageable.

Rocco (2016)

In this documentary, one of the world’s most prolific porn actors, Rocco Siffredi, is mostly clothed but comes across as a professional lover and a congenial husband and father.

RoccoFrance
3*

Directors:
Thierry Demaizière

Alban Teurlai
Editor:
Alban Teurlai
Director of Photography:
Alban Teurlai

Running time: 105 minutes

Boogie Nights kept us guessing until the final shot about the true size of its central character’s money-maker. Rocco, by contrast, opens with a close-up. There’s no mystery about the extent of his endowment and thus very little reason to keep the viewer in suspense. The titular Rocco, whose full nom de porno is Rocco Siffredi, has starred in around 1,500 porn films during his three decades in front of the camera. He may just be the most famous porn actor who has ever lived, and he is about to retire. It is very disappointing, then, that this documentary detailing his departure from the world of XXX only scratches the surface and does its utmost to avert its eyes from the prize in more ways than one.

Born with the surname Tano in 1964 in the town on Ortona on the east coast of Italy, perhaps the most phallus-shaped country in all of Europe and complete with gonads, Rocco recounts how – even as a young boy – he felt such a fire between his legs that he started masturbating at the age of just 9. His mother caught him but gave him a complicitous smile of permission. And he has never looked back. At least, that’s the way he tells it.

Today, despite his brutal on-camera pounding of a bevvy of young women, many of them from Eastern Europe, Rocco also has a family: two clean-cut teenage sons and their mother, Rózsa, who has been with him for more than 20 years. His cousin, Gabriele, has also been his lifelong production partner at their Budapest studios. Unfortunately, Gabriele appears to be unprofessional at best and senile at worst, coming up with ridiculous narratives for the films while Rocco’s (and the target viewer’s) pure focus is whether there will be enough sex. At another point, Gabriele forgets to hit the record button.

And yet, through it all, Rocco appears to be the most laid-back guy in the world. He has no real social barriers and handily makes out with most of the girls during the casting sessions. Most notable, however, is the precision with which he questions his future sex partners as he seeks to determine exactly what they are willing to do – or rather, have done to them. Rocco does not hold back during sex and fills every one of his partners’ orifices with brutal force. A few early scenes are particularly shocking because we see the hot post-coital showers expose bloody and blue bruises on butt cheeks.

The interviews with Rocco reveal a man seemingly without a care in the world but with a firm connection to his late mother. He says he carries her photo with him wherever he goes. By the end, however, the final product is too fulsome to be credible. We get the briefest of glimpses of his family, but if Rocco has any friends we don’t see them. The various people who do drift in and out of his life are never introduced, and the third act, which never recovers from an absurd detour into the English countryside, is stunningly weak.

This final act, which mostly takes place in Los Angeles on the set of what is allegedly Rocco’s swan song as a porn star, is lengthy but flaccid. James Deen, in some ways the Italian Stallion’s American counterpart, particularly with regard to the aggression he brings to his sexual encounters, is Rocco’s co-star, but for whatever reason he is not interviewed, which leaves us with more questions than answers. The slightly bemused look he shoots in Gabriele’s direction speaks volumes, however, and the sentiment is one the viewer easily identifies with.

If humanising its subject was the goal, the film is more or less successful. While we get little insight into either his day-to-day life or his thoughts on the many decades of fame and fornication, the image that Tano/Siffredi projects is one of kindness, sincere emotion and a persistent hunger for buxom female flesh. But if telling a story with enough detail to answer our most nagging questions was Rocco‘s other goal, it fails (just like Gabriele when he tried being a porn actor) to rise to the occasion.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

An unusually serious film from director Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a joy from start to finish.

Grand Budapest HotelUSA
4*

Director:
Wes Anderson

Screenwriter:
Wes Anderson

Director of Photography:
Robert Yeoman

Running time: 100 minutes

The Grand Budapest Hotel, besides being a much more serious film than we’re used to seeing from director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), makes many a direct play for the hearts of Central and East Europeans.

With its mixture of exquisite period detail, albeit slightly exaggerated, overt references to historical turning points in the region and a typically “Wesandersonian” presentation of the story as visibly but immersively fictional, the film is almost certain to be well received both behind the former Iron Curtain and around the world.

In 1985, an elderly gentleman looks straight into the camera and starts telling us a story that takes us back, first to 1968, and then to 1932, as the rise and fall of the Grand Budapest Hotel, a luxurious establishment somewhere in the Republic of Zubrowka, is displayed in all its alternately decrepit and extravagant excess.

The abovementioned Zubrowka, obviously named after one of the best vodkas I have ever tasted, Poland’s bison-grass infused Żubrówka, is almost as difficult to place as The Simpsons’ city of Springfield. The opening scene, set in a cemetery in the fictional city of Lutz, obviously refers to the Polish city of Łódź, and yet the name of the hotel refers to Hungary, although it is located in the “Sudetenwalt,” or Sudeten Forest, which suggests pre–World War II Czechoslovakia, or thereabouts.

The doubly encased storytelling mechanism (the man in 1985, a nameless author, shares with us how he came to meet the owner of the hotel, Mr. Moustafa, in 1968, who told him the story – one that dates to 1932 – of how he came to possess the grand establishment) is further framed by the very first scene, in which someone opens a book titled “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, neatly divided into chapters. Also, the exterior of the Grand Budapest Hotel is not life-size but rather immediately recognisable as a small, detailed model; many other tricks that sometimes bring to mind Anderson’s work on the stop-motion The Fantastic Mr. Fox continue to make it clear this is a tale enriched by reality rather than one seeking to emulate it.

While Mr. Moustafa is the proprietor in 1968, played by the wonderful F. Murray Abraham (who recently had an equally short but deeply satisfying role in Inside Llewyn Davis), he is but a teenage boy – first name Zero – in the story taking place in 1932, when he starts his work as a lobby boy, in service of the hotel’s famous concierge, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Monsieur Gustave personally tends to every need of his guests, and often those needs require him to spend some time in their private rooms, especially if they are blond.

Monsieur Gustave is great fun, soaked as he is in his L’Air de Panache perfume. Although fastidious to the point of being obsessive, he also has a big heart, and while he has his doubts about Zero’s qualifications to carry out his duties, he quickly warms to the boy and teaches him everything he knows. He also protects him with his life, and his magnanimity, or even friendship, is rewarded when he is locked up after being framed for the murder of a former hotel guest, Madame Desgoffe und Taxis, simply known as Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, enchanting as ever, even as she plays an 84-year-old woman).

The film presents itself as strictly removed from reality, but the traces of history are recognisable and remain potent despite being altered. The Nazi lightning symbol of the “SS” has been modified to appear as “ZZ” in this film, and the delicious pastries are provided by a fancy bakery called Mendl’s, very likely drawing its inspiration from the Austrian producer of gourmet foods, Julius Meinl. Sometimes, not unlike the approach taken by Joe Wright in his film adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the lighting changes to indicate a shift in tone, done in such a way as to bring it closer to the theater (in other words, overt performance), and eschews any attempt to give the film an air of grittiness.

And yet, as Anderson has proved so often in the past, his characters can still elicit emotions in us even though they belong to a world so obviously different from our own. Friendship and family are two key themes in the films of the director, and here, too, despite the countless cameos (many well-known actors each appear only in a single scene, including Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Bob Balaban) and the film’s many moments of whimsy, it ends with a sudden rush of emotions as we come to realise how beautifully The Grand Budapest Hotel and its characters fit together, how much they have been through and how much we have enjoyed their adventures, notwithstanding the unspoken Nazi and communist uprisings that we can read between lines.

This film brims with creativity and ingenuity, as even a ride in a funicular or a bobsled can turn into something unforgettable (for the latter, think of the game of “hotbox” in The Fantastic Mr. Fox rather than bobsledding at the Winter Games). The emotions are also there, very competently handled by Anderson, whose direction of the young Tony Revolori, as Zero, elicits a performance that is flawlessly part of the film. There is also one of the most unusual escapes from prison you will have ever seen on film and a handful of small pans that produce, as Anderson learned so well in The Darjeeling Limited, moments of visual bathos that are as hilarious as they are unexpected.

A very different kettle of fish compared with his other films, this is perhaps Wes Anderson’s most subdued film to date, but he deftly handles the balance between the comical and the dramatic, yielding a work of beauty, comedy and mystery that is every bit as enchanting, funny and ultimately moving as some of his best films.

Whiplash (2016)

In the exquisite Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s second feature, we catch a glimpse of a young drummer’s blood, sweat and tears on the way to greatness.

WhiplashUSA
4.5*

Director:
Damien Chazelle

Screenwriter:
Damien Chazelle
Director of Photography:
Sharone Meir

Running time: 105 minutes

Malcolm Gladwell says it takes around 10,000 hours of practice to reach mastery of a craft. But in Damien Chazelle’s exhilarating and at times unnerving second feature film, Whiplash, we see that sometimes all a budding professional needs is a teacher from hell. Enter J.K. Simmons, clad in black and ready to rumble.

Simmons plays Terence Fletcher, a diabolical conductor whose presence at the elite Shaffer Conservatory sends chills down the spines of his students as much as his colleagues. He does not suffer fools gladly. He expects only the best, often more, and when he thinks his band is not taking the music, their performance or their skills as seriously as he does, he can quickly start spewing a tirade comprising ever-more-complex concatenations of obscenity-laden expressions: Think of the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, and then turn it up to 11. In the film’s attention-grabbing opening scene, Fletcher’s eye catches the talent of a young jazz drummer, but while he deigns to speak to the boy, it is immediately obvious he is not there for small talk, and when he decides the tempo is not to his liking, he leaves as abruptly as he appeared.

The young student is called Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller), but even though he appears in every single scene in the film, we don’t learn his name until a handful of scenes into the story. By contrast, Fletcher’s ominous presence hangs over the school and all its students like the Sword of Damocles, and we cannot ignore him. It often happens that he flips at the drop of a baton from smiling and patient to sociopathic tyrant. We see him have a near hysterical outburst early on when he hears the instrument of someone in his band is out of tune, dissolving the culprit to tears with insults about his intellect, his talent and his weight. In the very next scene, he whispers playfully, intimately to Neimann, teasing personal information from him, before knocking him down to size five minutes later in a very public way.

Chazelle has fashioned not only a riveting study of a young man’s struggle as a musician and the tough decisions he has to make if he is to have a chance at success, but also a visually stunning piece of filmmaking that weds rich colors and beautiful lighting with dynamic editing. One scene also appeared in the eponymous short film that first showcased his talents at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it received the Short Film Jury Award for U.S. Fiction, and it is to Chazelle’s credit that there is equally palpable, overbearing tension in both versions.

Neimann remains inscrutable for a large part of the film. We see him spending time watching Rififi at the movies with his father, a high-school English teacher who wants his son to be happy but also wants him to have greater certainty of stability on the horizon. They are still close, but when the authoritative (and authoritarian) Fletcher takes an interest in Neimann’s talents, even when he treats him like dirt and hurls homophobic, anti-Semitic and many other kinds of slurs at him, the boy is ready to take almost any psychological abuse in order to reach the top. When he matter-of-factly dumps his girlfriend because he can’t foresee a future that has space for both his music and her, we get a queasy feeling he might be willing to risk everything in the name of being a drummer worthy of Fletcher’s faint praise.

The rehearsal room at the school is the setting for blood, sweat and tears – all of which Neimann spills at one point or another on his way to focusing on his craft with dedication that requires equal measures narcissism and lunacy, and in this regard at least Fletcher serves as a role model. The feared conductor doesn’t just put his students through their paces. No, that would be too easy. He puts them through a meat grinder, but those who survive the initial hazing are still not safe but only as good as their last chord.

For all its commitment and focus, the story does veer off the rails into far less credible territory in its final moments. The climactic scene is staged with great passion and a sense of showmanship for the director that is entirely effective, but there are numerous things that don’t make much sense in retrospect. Regardless of its credibility, however, the tension and the terror the situation elicits in the viewer are so acute that some might find the material difficult to watch. And although he is only 19 years old, Neimann seems terribly naïve and is always surprised when his mentor abuses him over and over again.

Be careful what you wish for, Chazelle suggests. No pain, no gain. He strikes a wonderful balance between tragedy and comedy, even in his visuals: The opening scenes are filled with push-ins that are simultaneously hilarious by virtue of their sheer quantity and creepy because we don’t know whether they represent a looming danger.

Simmons plays one of the most unforgettable bullies in recent memory, a truly odious disciplinarian who feels no regret and believes he is doing the world a service by pushing people to their limits. When his perceived sadism dovetails with the masochism of a student willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of his art, that may very well be where a master is born, but signing a contract with the devil has its downsides. The impressionable Neimann is proud of his bruises, because he thinks it makes him stronger and more resistant on his path to greatness, but whether he will ever get there remains an open question.

But there can be no question that Whiplash is evidence of a great talent. Despite a weak narrative in the final act, the film is captivating as it traces the claustrophobia of a young man’s determined struggle to prove himself. The 29-year-old Chazelle doesn’t have much to worry about: He has already proved he is a force to be reckoned with.

Noah (2013)

Noah, a remarkably perceptive short film about the consequences of relying on social media alone to gauge what is happening in real life, has first-rate visuals and a climax immersed in a quiet pathos. 

NoahCanada
4.5*

Directors:
Patrick Cederberg

Walter Woodman
Screenwriters:
Patrick Cederberg

Walter Woodman
Director of Photography:
Patrick Cederberg

Running time: 17 minutes

A kind of Lady in the Lake for the age of Facebook, the 17-minute-long Noah is only shot from the point of view of its central character. The twist is that this POV shows only one thing: the screen of a Macintosh computer, conveying thought processes to us as we skip from Wikipedia, Facebook and Skype to YouPorn and Chatroulette, often to the soundtrack of whatever is playing on iTunes. But we need nothing more, because in so many respects life today is “lived” online, and much of the power of this film lies in the two young directors’ firm execution of rhythmic pans and zooms to build suspense at exactly the right moments.

Co-created by Patrick Cederberg and Walter Woodman, who were students at Ryerson University during production, the film stars Sam Kantor as the titular Noah Lennox, who is in his final year of high school, but it takes a few screens before we even know what he looks or sounds like. After all, how often are our own faces projected back to us when we are online? But our fingerprints are all over our Internet history, and thus, we immediately recognise Noah (and parts of ourselves) when we see him open Safari to start browsing.

With porn running in the background, he opens Facebook to chat with his girlfriend, Amy, who says they have to talk. He opens Skype to chat with her, but the interaction is awkward because he is not really paying attention, and she is obviously about to broach a serious topic: life and their relationship after high school graduation. The connection is lost, and there is silence, although Noah can see that she received and read his “hello?” on Facebook during this time.

Thus begins an obsessive quest for answers, as Noah browses Amy’s Facebook photos, notices one guy’s name coming up again and again, then wonders what this is all about and eventually pries his way into and violates the most sacred of Amy’s online spaces: her Facebook profile. To ratchet up the tension, Cederberg and Woodman punctuate hyperactive pans and zooms with well-placed pauses to convey hesitation and to make us feel like we are not only inside Noah’s skin but also feeling the same anxiety he is. A cursor hovering momentarily over a button is the calm before the storm as we realise he is about to cross their relationship’s Rubicon.

Noah is insightful, hip and one-of-a-kind. The compelling artistry of its visuals, made elegant thanks to seamless editing and other post-production work that successfully imitates the darting movements of the eyes, and the continued topicality of the themes of technology and isolation mean this film has not aged a day since its release. There is not a single moment that could be trimmed from the film without tarnishing the perfect integration of plot and form that the filmmakers sought and achieved. By the time we reach the climax, which appears like a brilliant sunrise over the soggy marshlands of all that came before, the feeling is one of pure empathy with Noah.

Many a viewer will be drawn to and fascinated by the form but stay to live through this particular moment in the life of a total stranger because the devices and the emotions they evoke are so familiar. And that is something that doesn’t have every day.

Noah is an ark captained by two gifted filmmakers whose execution matches their vision and who steer the narrative seemingly effortlessly towards its majestic conclusion. It is daring and dazzling, and its depiction of a moment of life online feels damn authentic.

The Ides of March (2011)

Never before has the second-oldest profession seemed quite as dull as it does in George Clooney’s The Ides of March.

ides-of-marchUSA
2*

Director:
George Clooney

Screenwriters:
George Clooney

Beau Willimon
Grant Heslov
Director of Photography:
Phedon Papamichael

Running time: 100 minutes

George Clooney’s The Ides of March is an adaptation of Farragut North, a play by Beau Willimon that focuses on a fictitious Democratic primary in the battleground state of Ohio.

The plot sees Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris running for the office of president of the United States. He has his campaign staff convinced he will be the next great hope for the nation, the one to “take the country back” – a phrase so hackneyed yet used with surprising regularity, and with even more suprising success, by political hopefuls – and he is neck-and-neck with his main Democratic contender, Senator Ted Pullman. When the race reaches the Buckeye State, it’s make-or-break time.

Although the genre of political films is varied, a lack of action is usually a bad thing, and so it is here. There are brief snippets of Morris’s interaction with potential voters along the way, a question or two during a debate or a town hall session, but by and large his positions and his personality remain a mystery to us.

Keeping in mind the title’s obvious, ominous reference to the fall of Julius Caesar (“Beware, the Ides of March!”), we wait for the storm to break over the head of the powerful Governor Morris. But instead of focusing on him, the film introduces his campaign team, headed by two top strategists: Paul Zara, the veteran campaign staffer and long-time supporter, and Stephen Meyers, the bright-eyed media whiz kid.

As expected in a film based on a play, the performances are all exquisitely modulated – in this case, to fit the dark mood of the narrative – and the actors sparkle in their restricted capacity. For Ryan Gosling, who plays Stephen, it’s a case of having nothing to do, but doing it rather well, while it is unfortunate that Paul Giamatti, who plays Pullman’s campaign manager, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as his counterpart on the Morris campaign, get equally little screen time.

The characters have a lot of potential, but in the end each has only one big confrontational scene, providing us with a mere taste of what could have been, had Clooney worried less about his gloomy display case and more about the exhibit itself.

There is nothing wrong with a decision to focus on the campaign staffers rather than the candidate they represent: In The War Room, a documentary that traces Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for the White House, his strategists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos provided long stretches of electric energy and entertainment. By contrast, Clooney’s film feels positively catatonic.

The first half of the film, a full hour, is mere setup of Morris’s political ambitions and his firm shot at the nomination. There is much talk of delegates, primaries and endorsements, but little is of any immediate consequence, and, for much of the film, save an all-too-brief interlude with his wife in a limousine, we only see fragments of the man.

This setup is tepid, and it is easy to lose interest until the revelation, finally, that Morris has been misbehaving with an intern. This discovery leads to major disillusionment on the part of Meyers and an expectation on our side that the film might stake out Lewinsky territory. It doesn’t, and things quickly take a turn for the melodramatic.

By that stage, many in the audience will have fallen asleep. The dialogue is much more directed at a political pundit than the average viewer looking for entertainment at the cinema, and for almost anyone unfamiliar with the American political system, the film may at times seem decidedly foreign. Considering the offhand allusions to donkeys and elephants, talk about primaries and constant references to K Street, the dialogue would likely be too difficult to follow at important moments.

The Ides of March suggests voters will ultimately be let down by their candidate, which is not exactly a novel insight. Clooney, taking up the roles of politician in front of the camera and filmmaker behind it, lets down the viewers by making a film that is much less engaging than political races in the real world.

God’s Own Country (2017)

God’s Own Country borrows so much from Ang Lee’s famous cowboy romance it should have been titled “Brokeback on the Moors”.

God's Own CountryUK
3.5*

Director:
Francis Lee

Screenwriter:
Francis Lee

Director of Photography:
Joshua James Richards

Running time: 105 minutes

Two strapping young lads herding sheep by day and making love to each other one night out in the field? Check. Do we see spit being used instead of lube? Yes. Is there an awkward silence the next morning? Absolutely. Does the one deliberately look in front of him while the other changes his underwear in the background? That, too. And is there evident yearning when one of them smells a piece of clothing left behind by the one who is no longer there? Yes, even that.

God’s Own Country, an often assured feature-film début by British director Francis Lee, borrows whole-cloth from Brokeback Mountain without adding much of its own, although the story has been altered slightly for the sake of updating and transposing Ang Lee’s landmark 2005 film to the grittier moors of the English countryside.

The central character here is Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), a farm boy barely out of his teens, whom we first lay eyes on late one night when he is throwing up in the toilet bowl of his parents’ farmhouse in Yorkshire. The next morning, we learn this is a regular occurrence, and we soon realise why: In this small farming community, being gay is not yet entirely acceptable, and even though Johnny has frequent encounters (penetration, never kissing) with whoever locks eyes with him at the bar or an auction, the idea of a relationship with a man is a foreign concept to him.

His father has suffered a stroke and realises his son is not up to the job of taking on his role on the farm. Thus, a (presumably) low-paying position as a temporary farmhand opens up, and this is when a brooding young Romanian migrant, Gheorghe (Alec Secăreanu, who looks like he could be Oscar Isaac’s brother) arrives on the scene, not without his own baggage. Things develop more or less as we expect, although these two characters are much more secure in their sexuality than Jack and Ennis the cowboys, their famous fictional counterparts from the early 2000s, who were admittedly a product of their time.

Lee’s handling of the relationship is very sensitive at the outset, and the two characters complement each other in just the right way: the immature Johnny, whose idea of the world only extends as far as the closest pub, has had plenty of sexual encounters but no intimacy, while Gheorghe, who has travelled to the United Kingdom on his own and seems much wiser about the ways of the world, takes on the role of both lover and father to the slightly awkward Englishman. The scene in which the two finally kiss, after much reluctance from Johnny, is paced just right and a striking testament to Gheorghe’s patience and tenderness.

Unfortunately, the film’s final moments are an absolute travesty – the kind of fairytale development that lessens the film’s thoughtfulness and is wholly at odds with the rest of the plot. It feels almost like it was tacked on as an afterthought for the sake of greater viewer satisfaction and commercial success, but the resolution to the climax’s dramatic complication is a myopic idea of romance that one character is too callow to deserve and the other is too good to concede.

The ending is a big disappointment, but the rest of the film does a good job of making the rough contours of a relationship seem less sharp-edged.

All in all, while the meaning of its title remains an enigma, God’s Own Country is mostly a compelling reworking of a tale we have seen before, and the reason lies primarily with the small group of very committed actors. Besides O’Connor and Secăreanu, Ian Hart as Johnny’s stern but paternal father and Gemma Jones as the devoted grandmother both warm our hearts with their candid but caring interactions with Johnny.

Viewed at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival.

The Revenant (2015)

After an attack by a bear leaves him fighting for his life, a 19th-century trapper marches on alone through the snow to face another foe.

The RevenantUSA
4*

Director:
Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Screenwriters:
Mark L. Smith
Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Director of Photography:
Emmanuel Lubezki

Running time: 155 minutes

Few things are more dangerous than a man who has nothing left to lose. Interesting, then, that the first act of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant, set in the sub-zero temperatures of a 19th-century winter, crystallises both of these, and it does so in the most visually memorable way possible.

With snow covering a stunning landscape nearly untouched by white society, the image we have of this part of the Louisiana Territory is one of ravishing beauty hiding terror in the form of roaming bears and bison and a number of Native American tribes, some of whom are at war with each other. In the midst of all of this, an all-male hunting party is exploring the land when it is attacked and almost entirely decimated first by an arrow-wielding indigenous tribe and then by a grizzly bear protecting its cubs. The man who suffers the brunt of the latter attack is the bearded Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is traveling with his half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Glass is mauled to pieces but remains alive, and that is where the story really kicks in.

The film is based on real events that took place in 1823 in the northwestern part of present-day South Dakota, when Glass, having sustained staggering injuries during the attack, was buried in haste and left for dead before he made his way back through the wilderness and rejoined his company. As is to be expected, The Revenant (which means “the one who comes back”) compresses the original timeline, but it also focuses in great detail on the interior life of Glass as he fights his own mortality and deep scars, both physical and spiritual, to make it to the end.

Using numerous dream sequences and quite a few moments in limbo between dream and reality, the director imbues his main character with notions of tradition, introspection and survival that are subtle and do not require big action scenes. That is not to say that the film eschews such scenes, and the first act contains a major battle between the Americans and the Arikara tribe, presented with both flair and nuance by the finest director of photography at work in the industry today, Emmanuel Lubezki.

Building on and vastly surpassing the camera work on his and Iñárritu’s previous film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which was restricted almost entirely to a single location, Lubezki uses his camera here with the kind of Midas touch we saw in Children of Men, or a less pretentious Panic Room, lensed by Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khondji. Many of his takes are very mobile and last much longer than takes tend to do in major commercial films (the production budget on The Revenant was $135 million).

As a result, we get scenes in which we see the characters’ movements captured without changes of shots or visible editing, but the scale can vary from the intimate — Glass hides behind a rock in the river as the camera smoothly glides above the surface of the water towards and around him to give us his point of view both directly and indirectly — to the epic: Glass’s company is attacked, and after a significant amount of action, Glass shoots an Arikara tribesman who has been hiding high up in a tree. The man falls to the ground, where he is brutally and bluntly attacked by a white man with the butt of a rifle. The camera rushes over to them, when an arrow hits the man in the face. He keels over, and the camera rises up to meet an Indian on horseback, whom the camera promptly pursues at his level. All of this in a single, seemingly unbroken take.

The scene is simply extraordinary, but the level of action will blind many to the talent behind the scenes to succeed in bringing the images to life in this exact way.

While the action can be gruesome and in-your-face — during the bear attack, the grizzly sow gets so close to us her breath briefly fogs up the lens — much of the film slowly brings into focus the headspace of its central character, and Iñárritu uses both sound (the soundtrack fades in and out at some points) and image to get us to experience life in Glass’s skin, a task that is far from easy.

We understand early on why Glass wants to make it back to his men, but the idea of revenge stays with us a full two hours after that, thanks to subtle reminders in the screenplay in the form of a disgruntled, wide-eyed trapper, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, in peak form), who only looks out for himself and will do anything to get his way, and the story of a tribesman, Elk Dog, who is looking for his daughter and who we sense would kill to get her back.

First and foremost, the film is about revenge and survival, but there are solid hints about the need for something transcendent to give meaning to the brutal, untamed wilderness of the Wild West, which consists not only of cowboys riding across wide open spaces and past sandstones buttes but also of trappers in parkas trudging through thick forest foliage and past sharp granite cliffs.

Unlike Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, whose aspect ratio was 2.76:1, Iñárritu’s film is only being screened at 2.35:1. And yet, the scenery practically begs the eyes to tell the head to move from side to side and drink in all the frigid beauty, albeit underpinned with simmering fury and overcast with menacing danger.

We do not always understand how Glass manages to find the way home, and the contemplative scenes that ring with the soft elocution of the Pawnee language may be tedious to some in the audience, but in the end, there is no escaping the director’s master stroke of enfolding his crude scenes of violence and endurance in a softer sheen of humanity. Even a particularly grisly scene with a horse, more or less plagiarised from the Icelandic Of Horses and Men (Hross í oss) by Benedikt Erlingsson, or the depiction of a bison stampede in the dead of night, has a calm about it that we do not expect.

While it could have made fuller characters out of its Native Americans, who do not rise above mere symbols of mysticism, the film is a master class for those seeking to tell stories about determination and perseverance. It is beautiful and unforgettable, and Iñárritu’s struggle to make it was well worth the toil.

On Body and Soul (2017)

Two deers in a snow-speckled forest punctuate awkward social scenes at a bloody Budapest abattoir to create a memorable film with a dreamy, unconventional “two people meant for each other” narrative.

On Body and SoulHungary
4*

Director:
Ildikó Enyedi
Screenwriter:
Ildikó Enyedi
Director of Photography:
Máté Herbai

Original title: Testről és Lélekről

Running time: 115 minutes

In the dead of winter, deep in a snow-speckled forest, a stag moves closer to place its chin ever so gently on the back of a wide-eyed doe. Light snowfall covers their fur. This peaceful, luminous scene – intimate despite the frigid temperatures – is like something out of a dream. Back in reality, it is summer in Budapest, where Endre, a middle-aged financial director at an abattoir, meets the porcelain-faced, blonde-haired Maria, the young new quality inspector who is all but expressionless except for a slight deer-caught-in-the-headlights look.

These two very different milieux alternate back and forth for a while until we realise they not only complement each other but are in fact directly connected: Every night, both Endre and Maria, who have never met before, have exactly the same dream in which the former is the stag and the latter is the doe. But unsurprisingly for a film from Hungary, a country whose film industry has specialised in works vibrating with a kind of magical realism for a number of years, this revelation does not come as a particular shock to either of them, although fortunately the flurry of magic slowly draws them together. Not coincidentally, all of this plays out against a story doing the rounds at the abattoir of two people who used “mating powder” meant for the cows and suffered some serious(ly hilarious) side effects.

The scenes at the abattoir are very graphic, and while we do not see the actual killing of the animals, we do see how the cows are decapitated with blood spurting forth in all directions. Logically, there is an obvious fear that the same will eventually befall the two deers, but director Ildikó Enyedi, who crafted the film based on her own screenplay, deftly ties the characters’ dreams and reality together in ways that make a great deal of sense while showing us both the brutality of falling in love and the serenity of being in love.

On Body and Soul drops hints along the way to give rough sketches of its two central characters but does not flesh either of them out in any great detail. This is the right approach, given that the film exists on a level that is more spiritual than physical, and any prolonged explanation or back story would have made Endre and Maria too heavy. It is never explained why Endre has a crippled left arm or how Maria has come to recoil from any physical contact, but it small (albeit, perhaps intentionally so, never perfect) ways, they complement each other.

By the time the two have grown closer together and Maria has decided it might be a good idea to get used to being touched, we get an absolutely stunning moment of beauty and subtlety that encapsulates the atmosphere of the film as a whole: After creepily staring at couples making out in the park, she lies down and feels the gentle sting of the blades of grass on her exposed skin. She falls asleep, only to be awoken by the park’s sprinkler system. But when she raises her head, she is smiling, aware that this is the first time she has had this experience, and the water that runs down her cheeks looks like tears of joy.

Another shot that stands is one that shows the stag running at full speed while the camera does a lateral tracking shot at the same steady pace. Like something out of a dream, giving the impression of happening for real but showing us something we could never have witnessed without film, this shot is the definition of pure cinema.

While the scenes with the deers are breathtakingly peaceful and gorgeous to look at, grisly moments captured early on at the abattoir will likely be upsetting to many viewers, in particular those who are non-carnivores by choice. Maria’s inscrutable demeanour, which at turns renders her asociality completely farcical, becomes more relatable during the comical scenes with her pediatrist (yes, you read that right). At the same time, Endre’s acceptance of her quirkiness is neither hands-off nor contrived, and by the time we reach the climax we want the two of them to be together so much that some of the more ridiculous developments become wholly palatable.

On Body and Soul is definitely a very different kind of love story, but for those willing to look past the blood and snow and see the two extremes join together in the middle, this is a delightful film whose unexpected humour will stay with you for days.

Viewed at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival.