Loveless (2017)

Loveless is mostly about a boy from a broken home who goes missing, but somehow it also wants to be about Russia and Ukraine’s broken relationship.

LovelessRussia
3.5*

Director:
Andrei Zvyagintsev

Screenwriters:
Andrei Zvyagintsev
Oleg Negin
Director of Photography:
Mikhail Krichman

Running time: 125 minutes

Original title: Нелюбовь
Transliterated title: Nelyubov

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless has something to do with the conflict in Ukraine. But every time we think the director is about to make the connection clear, he lets go of the chain. This game of hide and seek perfectly suits the material he is working with: Minutes into the film, a 12-year-old boy, Alexey, runs away from home, where his parents are about to divorce, but neither wants to take him along on the ride to a brighter future. For the rest of the film’s 2-hour running time, he remains missing, even though the camera constantly lingers on empty scenes just to tease us with the possibility he will suddenly appear from out of frame. But he never does.

Thanks to snippets of radio programmes we hear in cars, we can deduce that most of the story takes place at the end of 2012, as (then–opposition leader, now the late) Boris Nemtsov is in the news and there is mention of an Obama–Romney debate. In the film’s final coda, the action moves to 2014, around the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Russian television news networks flood the airwaves with stories about death and destruction in the country’s small neighbour to the West, all allegedly the fault of the newly installed government in Kyiv.

However, despite these political undertones, which only surface intermittently, the film lacks the furious anger that made Zvyagintsev’s previous work, Leviathan, so ambitious and affirmed him as one of the bravest big-name filmmakers working in Russia today. On the whole, Loveless wants us to focus more on the story of the lost boy rather than the allegorical implications the narrative might (or might not) entail, but for both emotional and structural reasons, that is not always easy.

The film certainly lives up to its title. Drained almost entirely of colour, the story initially takes place on the outskirts of a remote Moscow suburb, where monotonous Soviet-era high-rise apartment blocks permeate the landscape and winter has turned the local park into a lifeless morass scattered with monstrous dead branches. In the scenes that follow, Loveless sketches Alexey’s ice-cold domestic situation in broad strokes that make us want to bolt from the apartment as quickly as possible.

The atmosphere is decrepit; in fact, the film could just as well have been called “lifeless”, although the two main characters – Alexey’s parents, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) – provide for riveting, stunningly tense scenes whenever they are in the same room. We also get to see, as Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin demonstrated brilliantly, that children born from a mother who would rather see them aborted are bound for tragedy from Day 1.

There are no two ways about it: Zhenya is a terrible mother. Always more interested in her phone than in her son (or almost anything else, for that matter), she stares at her device from morning till night. But the director takes care to show us that she is not unique in this respect: In restaurants and elsewhere, Moscow’s young women can’t get enough of seeing themselves in their selfies. The difference, of course, is that Zhenya has a family, at least for the moment. There is a distinction to be made with the older generation, as a scene in which Zhenya’s own loud-mouthed mother steamrolls over her with a flood of rhetoric that leaves us reeling with admiration because someone has finally put her in her place.

Although we see him for a very short amount of time, which includes a revelation that stabs the viewer right through the heart, we can completely empathise with Alexey and understand why he chooses to run away. Zvyagintsev is also very attentive in his depiction of the police, who are surprisingly sincere about the situation, even though Zhenya doesn’t deserve it. 

But this is the kind of film only those who prefer their mysteries open-ended will appreciate. Zvyagintsev will likely lose many a viewer during some of the slower and more drawn-out scenes that do not lead very far and certainly don’t head in the direction of solving the central puzzle. One take that lasts for several minutes, in which the camera barely moves, shows Zhenya and her new boyfriend together in bed while she recounts the story of her pregnancy with Alexey. This could have been much shorter and simply integrated into another scene, when she and her husband are trapped in a car for several hours.

By the time Loveless reaches the scene from 2014 in which the Russian televisions are hysterically blaming the supposed violence in Ukraine on the West, it feels like Zvyagintsev is heading into different territory. But when we see Zhenya, who by the looks of it is still as cold and narcissistic as before, donning a bright-red tracksuit clearly labelled “RUSSIA” and seemingly unaffected by the violence onscreen, we know there is a connection with the domestic carnage that went before. Unfortunately, the link is just too tenuous to grasp.

Undertow (2009)

In the Peruvian Undertow (Contracorriente), it takes a tragic loss of life – and the appearance of a ghost – to make a family man comfortable with his own sexuality, which, the film suggests, also makes him more of a man.

Cotracorriente / Undertow (2009)Peru
4*

Director:
Javier Fuentes-León

Screenwriters:
Javier Fuentes-León
Julio Rojas
Director of Photography:
Mauricio Vidal

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: Contracorriente

“There are a thousand ways to be a man”, says the boyfriend of Undertow‘s main character, the handsome curly-haired Miguel (Cristian Mercado), whose wife, Mariela, is close to giving birth to their first child. In his tiny fishing village on the Peruvian coast, being a man necessarily involves having a family (unless you’re the priest), and having friends depends on acting like a man.

In the film’s stunning opening close-up, Miguel turns his head and gently places it on Mariela’s bare belly to feel the baby kicking. He suggests it will be a boy and playfully calls the baby “Miguelito”. Mariela scolds him, concerned it might be a girl and that she might be confused if she heard her father calling her “Miguelito” through the womb. Babies can hear everything, she says. So can we, just a few minutes in, as it is made clear that in this town a man is a man and a woman a woman.

This makes Miguel’s extra-conjugal relationship with Santiago (Manolo Cardona) something of an existential problem, and despite being in a relationship that has clearly matured over time, Miguel is still far from comfortable viewing their bond as something entirely “manly”.

And yet, it is clear the relationship is not some infatuation. Eschewing the uncertainty that so often accompanies the start of a same-sex liaison, especially in a conservative society like this one in rural Peru with its (religious and non-religious) traditions, director Javier Fuentes-León starts his début feature in medias res, after the two have already known each other for a period of time.

Santiago, an artist who mostly keeps to himself, is an outsider in town and gets on some people’s nerves as he goes around taking photos of people and events to paint at home. His house even gets egged on a regular basis by children whose parents no doubt sanction their actions.

The first time we see Santiago and Miguel together, their interaction is intimate and informal. Clearly, this is not some fugacious fling. But Miguel has compartmentalised it as something that only takes place far from home, and he takes care never to meet or speak to Santiago in public. Understandably, Santiago’s frustration eventually reaches boiling point, particularly as Miguel is settling further into his role as a traditional family man. “I’m sick of playing dumb. You can; I can’t”, he admonishes him.

And then, out of the blue, a mere 30 minutes into the film, Santiago drowns. But there is no time to grieve as he announces his own death to Miguel, by showing up in the form of a (very lifelike) phantom in Miguel’s own home. And he keeps showing up, everywhere, the physical manifestation of Miguel’s memory of him, or of his guilt. Santiago is bound to wander aimlessly until his spirit finds peace. 

Thus begins one of the most thrilling, emotionally gripping sequence of scenes imaginable, as Miguel grows used to being out and about in public with his (albeit late and invisible) boyfriend, because no one can see them. It goes without saying that this is the perfect way for Miguel to grow in confidence, at least until the inevitable ceiling hits him on the head: The moment the town finds out about Miguel’s recent dalliances with the man they all simply refer to as “the artist”.

Along the way, former obstacles fall the one after the other, and halfway through the film, when the couple even recreates the most famous shot from Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity, there can no longer be any question in even the most conservative viewer’s mind that Miguel and Santiago should be afforded the same empathy we have always granted their equally fictional mixed-sex counterparts.

Santiago’s persistent presence in the film is as comical as it is beautiful. There are no scenes of anguish over him being dead – after all, to Miguel he looks and feels just as real as before – and even in death he has remained as understanding of Miguel’s fragile domestic situation as before: When he turns up next to the bed while Miguel is having sex with his wife (but thinking of Santiago), he covers his eyes but encourages Miguel to continue as if he weren’t there.

Undertow‘s final moments are deeply moving and tie a neat bow on Miguel’s blossoming into manhood, adding colour and closure by way of an honest conversation whose absence made the final moments of Brokeback Mountain feel like an open wound that would never heal. 

Yes, love is selfish. Miguel doesn’t play right by Santiago while he is alive, and even after his death he refuses to acknowledge their relationship. He wants to maintain his reputation in the eyes of the community by having a wife and a son. He wants to have his cake but eat his banana, too.

But by the time we reach the ending, an allegorical connection with Jesus Christ, who carried his cross along the Via Dolorosa in full view of a crowd of people after fighting long and hard with his inner demons, becomes clear. This is a man. This is what a man does when he is honest about who he is. He keeps his promise. And he ensures the one he loves finds peace, even if that means he has to sacrifice his companionship forever.

Zero for Conduct (1933)

Using all the tools at his disposal to take on the establishment, the 27-year-old Jean Vigo shows life as it is and film as it can be in Zero for Conduct.

Zero for ConductFrance
4*

Director:
Jean Vigo

Screenwriter:
Jean Vigo

Director of Photography:
Boris Kaufman

Running time: 40 minutes

Original title: Zéro de conduite

Orson Welles was 25 when he started shooting Citizen Kane, a film whose tongue-in-cheek, broad-strokes reference to media magnate William Randolph Hearst landed him in hot water but ultimately re-defined the parameters of the possible in movie making. Seven and a half years earlier, under very different circumstances, a 27-year-old Frenchman named Jean Vigo, the son of a prominent anarchist assassinated for his beliefs, had started production on a medium-length film that also took a shot at re-inventing the wheel and arguably succeeded beyond the director’s wildest dreams.

The title was Zero for Conduct (the full title is subtitled “Young Devils in School“), and it is a visionary take on childhood rebellion against oppressive school structures. These 40 minutes are a corner stone of what film enthusiasts refer to as the “poetic realism” movement, to which Vigo would contribute just one more film – his only feature, L’Atalante – before his tuberculosis-induced death at the age of 29.

Poetic realism refers to a loose array of socially conscious films made in France during the early years of “sound cinema” that focused on working-class characters. Besides Vigo, the best-known directors of the movement included Jean Renoir (Les bas-fonds / The Lower Depths, 1936), Julien Duvivier (Pépé le Moko, 1937) and Marcel Carné (Le Quai des brumes / Port of Shadows, 1938).

Nearly 75 years after it was made, Jean Vigo’s controversial take on the French educational system (the film was banned until the end of the Second World War) remains an astonishing accomplishment because it is not a stale vision of the world weighed down by the technology of the time. The title refers to the punishment meted out to school children, no matter how small the alleged infraction: detention on Sunday.

Although made shortly after the advent of the “talkie”, a development that halted the strides made in cinematography over the previous decade, Zero for Conduct is remarkably supple, thanks in no small part to its 26-year-old cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, the younger brother of the cinema’s first visual wizard, Dziga Vertov. And the storytelling, albeit frequently patchy, somehow lifts the viewer into the clouds thanks to the playful nature of the events as depicted.

The opening scene is particularly attention-grabbing: Unfolding as a scene from a classic silent film, it contains a strong score by Maurice Jaubert and no audible dialogue. Inside one compartment of a moving steam train, two young school boys are amusing themselves by blowing balloons and pretending they are a woman’s breasts, which they naturally proceed to fondle.  They also smoke cigars, blow on a miniature trumpet and perform the old “pulling off your thumb” trick in close-up, all while the one adult in the scene (an as yet anonymous character opposite them) is so fast asleep the boys imagine he might be dead.

As soon as the train pulls into the station, however, reality sets it, and it does so by penetrating the film itself: The dreamland of silent cinema fades away as the boys get off the train and we hear a soundtrack reproducing their movements and dialogue. They are returning to boarding school after the holidays and discover that the man who was sleeping in the train is in fact the new school monitor, Huguet, played by the wonderfully youthful Jean Dasté.

The casting of Dasté, who had débuted in Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning the previous year, as the only likeable teacher (who even imitates Chaplin’s Tramp to amuse his students) is inspired and ultimately strengthens our resolve against his creepy colleagues.

Vigo effortlessly interweaves the children’s gaiety and inclination for mischief with more serious incidents of injustice at the school. And the tone is always light, even as events seem to be heading towards their inexorable conclusion: large-scale rebellion. He does this by depicting the authority figures as rather pathetic. The clearest example is the headmaster, played by a thickly bearded dwarf with a high-pitched voice who stores his bowler hat under a glass dome. The contrast between his high position in the school hierarchy and the lowly way in which he is represented is so stark it is all but certain to elicit laughter from the viewer.

The tall, gangly apparently mute housemaster, Beanpole, who steals from the children and is generally odious, cuts another comical figure. Huguet makes a drawing of him by hand, which comes to life and turns into an animation of a stick-figure Napoleon Bonaparte. Earlier in this same classroom scene, a boy tossed a ball into the air before a jump cut made it disappear in mid-air. These are very brief, arguably inconsequential moments for the narrative, but they do add a level of playfulness that borders on magical realism.

The most famous scene, however, is the late-night pillow fight that precedes the climactic uprising. Using slow motion and producing a kind of indoor snowfall with purely conventional means (feathers), Vigo demonstrates his skill at turning the mundane into something enchanting, fashioning beauty out of childhood rebellion. This scene has been reproduced in a group of films as distinct as Fanny and Alexander and Billy Elliot, and there is no question Zero for Conduct influenced the depiction of school episodes involving Antoine Doinel, the school-flunking central character in François Truffaut’s début feature, The 400 Blows.

Although it is more a collection of well-staged fragments rather than an elegantly maturing narrative, Zero for Conduct is a kind of magic. Filled with anger at authority figures, it also hurls its derision at and cuts them down to size by using a novel approach to realism that seeks to break free and soar towards the skies: poetic realism.

Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

The most memorable donkey in the history of cinema is an infinitely better actor than his human counterparts in Robert Bresson’s emotionally stunted Au hasard Balthazar.

Au hasard BalthazarFrance
3*

Director:
Robert Bresson

Screenwriter:
Robert Bresson

Director of Photography:
Ghislain Cloquet

Running time: 95 minutes

Even though they almost always deal with profoundly spiritual issues, most of Robert Bresson’s films cannot be taken very seriously because the acting is so unbelievably bad. The French director famously used amateurs because he considered them blank canvases onto which it was easier to project fictional characters than would be the case with professional actors. And yet, the result, inevitably, is people uncomfortably saying lines that sound like a machine reading a page instead of an actual person speaking his/her mind. It’s diction without emotion, and the result is one laughably robotic line reading after another. Luckily, the main actor in Au hasard Balthazar is not a human but a donkey. And he is unaffected by these demands from Bresson, which makes the film at least somewhat acceptable to watch.

One of Bresson’s most highly acclaimed films (in the 2012 Sight and Sound critics’ poll, it took the 16th spot, handily beating out the director’s other entry on the list, Pickpocket, at no. 63), Au hasard Balthazar is certainly very successful at its anthropomorphism. But while we see the donkey as a person, it is very unfortunate that we also tend to view the lethargic characters as donkeys, or even worse, inanimate still lifes incapable of change.

The most grating example of this passivity is the non-donkey lead in the film, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky). Early on, she tenderly places a crown of flowers around the head of her pet donkey, Balthazar. She sits back down on a bench and looks fondly at him. Behind her, a petty criminal, Gérard (François Lafarge), sneaks up and touches her hand. Marie’s response? She simply gets up and moves gingerly into the house. Looking back timidly at Gérard, she sees his gang of good-for-nothing buddies have joined him in brutally kicking poor Balthazar for their own amusement. She makes no effort to protect the donkey, nor does she display any particular revulsion at his suffering.

A few days later, after her family has hired out Balthazar to a baker, who coincidentally employs Gérard to deliver the bread, Marie spots the donkey alone next to the road. She strokes him, lovingly, as she always does, when she sees Gérard appear with a lascivious look on his face. She slowly moves back to her car, but Gérard follows her onto the passenger seat. But she says nothing, and she does nothing. Two tears roll down her cheeks. And then he rapes her.

A few days later, he does the same. Her response? She starts dating him.

This narrative progression is not only sickening but makes Marie one of the weakest characters ever to grace the silver screen. And worst of all, she does not demonstrate any trace of doubt or self-reflection or anger or shame. For her, resistance is not only futile but unimaginable.

But let’s forget about Marie for a moment, as she is clearly unworthy of our empathy and perhaps even discussion.

The plot advances episodically with very awkward transitions between its various parts. Balthazar grows older and is passed from one owner to the next, each of whom whips him, kicks him or smashes a chair over his back. Although Balthazar is merely a donkey, he often realises this treatment is inhumane and sets off for greener pastures. The same, alas, cannot be said for Marie. She may be a fictional human of flesh and blood but clearly has no common sense.

The actions (or rather, the lack of any action) around Balthazar continually become more and more peculiar. The first owner from whom the donkey manages to escape is a farmer. In its youth, the donkey’s trot turns into a full-fledged gallop while it is transporting a heavy load of hay, and the attendant instability causes the cart and its cargo to keel over. Within seconds, a group of rowdy townspeople, pitchforks in hand, arrive to take out their anger (?) on poor Balthazar, who manages to scamper away just in time. These people are cartoonish in every way, seemingly the French version of Frankenstein‘s mob, but there is no explanation for their sudden appearance.

Since she is one of the film’s two main characters, let’s return to Marie for a moment. Another head-scratching moment comes late in the film after she appears to have been gang raped. Naturally, Gérard is one of the aggressors. Our first glimpse of the devastating scene comes after the fact, when a group of people, including Marie’s childhood love and hopeful wannabe beau, Jacques, peer expressionlessly through a window as she sobs, bruised and naked, inside. His inaction is yet further proof that this film’s characters are wholly devoid of human emotion.

The film’s visual style relies on a great many close-ups – sometimes to an obsessive degree. The shots are mostly of hands and feet, whose meaning is open to interpretation, but also of Balthazar’s face. This kind of intimacy draws us close. We may not get any information about his state of mind, but by being closer to this victim of human cruelty and indifference, we feel we can almost stroke him and put him at ease. Such shots make us forget, even just for a moment, about the chilling interruption (a donkey braying) of Massimiliano Damerini’s otherwise gentle “Piano Sonata in A Major” that plays over the opening credits.

Au hasard Balthazar does not have the narrative focus of Bresson’s Pickpocket nor the visual clarity of his A Man Escaped. The motivation for its characters’ (in)action is mostly unclear or simply incomprehensible. The only character that appeals to our emotions is Balthazar. Sadly, his presence alone cannot lift the film out of the realm of mediocrity.

Baby Driver (2017)

Baby Driver is filmic synaesthesia – a film with sexy car chases whose songs are mined for beats to correspond to and coincide with their on-screen counterparts.

Baby DriverUSA
3.5*

Director:
Edgar Wright
Screenwriter:
Edgar Wright

Director of Photography:
Bill Pope

Running time: 115 minutes

It’s called synaesthesia: that kind of marriage between image and sound. Not in a poetic but in a very palpable sense. It’s when the movement inside the images seems to be choreographed to or even reflect the music being played on the often non-diegetic soundtrack. The most famous example is Mickey Mouse, the apprentice, commanding the magical broomstick to carry heavy buckets of water to the beat of Paul Dukas’s “L’apprenti sorcier” in Fantasia’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” episode. The movements on-screen correspond to the music’s rhythm on the soundtrack to create the impression of symbiotic unity and underline both the artistic aspirations of the staging and the feeling that everything “belongs together”.

This same approach informs the entirety of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, and as a side note, it is noteworthy that the screenplay itself was prefaced by the instruction that “Every scene in this film [be] driven by music”. This technique is most clearly on display in the post–opening credits scene: In what appears to be an unbroken take (although the complete lack of a camera reflection in shop windows exposes the influence of visual effects), the titular getaway driver, Baby (Ansel Elgort), walks the streets of Atlanta while his Classic iPod pumps Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” into his ears and onto the soundtrack. All the while, we notice words from the song sporadically but physically appear embedded in the environment at exactly the moment we hear them. Later on, the songs will gel with the movements of a car in a chase or even the shooting of a bullet to form a whole and prevent us from figuring out whether sound or image orientates the composition of the other.

The film is ostensibly a 2017 interpretation of Jean-Luc Godard’s famous maxim that “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun” (« Tout ce dont vous avez besoin pour faire un film, c’est d’une fille et d’un flingue »), but one that is set to rapturous music instead of half-baked philosophical voice-overs. Also, the opening car chase that serves as the film’s ignition spark is one of the most thrilling in a very long time.

The girl is Debora (Lily James), a waitress at Bo’s Diner, an establishment that Baby, her own beau-in-waiting, visits on a regular basis. When Baby hears her sing his name – as part of Carla Thomas’s “B-A-B-Y” – he is immediately smitten. He is deeply involved in the world of the gun, although just like Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill character in GoodFellas, we never see him pull a trigger, which sets him apart from the rest of the gang and endears him to us. He works as a getaway driver for “Doc” (Kevin Spacey), a shadowy loner who hires freelancers to take part in heists he plans out in great detail. Baby has been on the payroll since he was barely a teenager and is the only constant in the ever-revolving teams that Doc puts together.

Baby Driver, not unlike American Graffiti, is a musical without being a musical: It is inextricably linked to its music, and luckily it is the cars that dance and not the characters. Actions are arranged by both the lyrics and the sounds, as Baby slams the brakes when we hear The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion yell “I’m gonna break!”, while traffic light changes or gun shots are orchestrated to visually underscore a particular musical beat.

But for all the clever gimmicks it deploys to slot the world of the ear into the world of the eye, the film fails to grab us by the throat or crawl into our heart. Sure, the back story with Baby’s mother is pretty sad, but Debora’s character is underdeveloped and left to sulk (admirably, she seems unwilling to do that) alone at the diner once too often. Her interaction with Baby shows chemistry and enormous promise for the future, but there is too little to work with. The plot would have been served better by a proper development of this relationship instead of the addition of an equally flimsy story in the margins involving Baby’s adorable blind godfather.

Furthermore, the final act’s sudden shift in tone, initiated by Baby directly causing the gruesome killing of a dangerous sidekick, is like shifting from fifth back to first gear on the open road. The whiplash is so bad I nearly burst out laughing at the absurdity of the moment. The film keeps up this pace for a full 10 minutes amid a hectic car chase and shoot-out until a horror movie–like “just when you thought the villain was dead, he comes back one last time” climax.

Baby-faced Elgort is well-cast as the odd-man out whose choice of music, it can be argued, literally saves his life on many an occasion. Director Edgar Wright clearly had fun directing this music video of a film, but Baby Driver’s first two acts are far superior to its third, and while some of the songs on the soundtrack are destined to become tied to their on-screen visualisations, the concatenation of set pieces ultimately sputters to a bizarrely cloying final coda.

Taekwondo (2016)

Two Taekwondo training partners who know little about each other spend a few days in the company of seven other men. Are we just imagining it, or is there a spark between them?

TaekwondoArgentina
3.5*

Directors:
Marco Berger

Martín Farina
Screenwriter:
Marco Berger

Director of Photography:
Martín Farina

Running time: 105 minutes

If you’re a gay man, you’ve often wondered whether a particular guy is gay. When you finally find out he is, you tell yourself, “It was glaringly obvious all along!” Perhaps you even pat yourself on the back and praise your own “gaydar”. And when you find out he’s not, it suddenly seems just as self-evident. While we’re wondering, the possibilities often appear to be both endless and contradictory.

Marco Berger specialises in warm, friendly tension resolved at the very last moment thanks to the briefest of happy ends. His films focus almost exclusively on unspoken desire capped by a tender moment of contact that makes us feel like everything will work out in the end if we are just patient enough for it to happen.

The Argentine filmmaker’s latest feature, co-directed by Martín Farina (whose homoerotically charged football documentary, Fulboy, Berger co-edited), is titled Taekwondo and features a real ensemble cast for the first time in his career. The entire film is set in a large house in the countryside, where a group of nine strapping young men – all friends of the affable, curly-haired Fernando (Lucas Papa) – are hanging out. It’s December, and summer is already in full swing. This means a lot of lazing around, primarily in and around the swimming pool, and mostly in very skimpy clothes. Sometimes, none at all.

In the charmingly verdant, near-symmetrical opening shot, we see a newcomer arrive at the house. Germán (Gabriel Epstein) is an acquaintance of Fernando’s from their Taekwondo class and is joining the gang for a relaxing, fun time. He is the odd one out from the beginning because the eight have known each other for a long time. Fortunately for him, Fernando makes a point of finding him wherever he is, speaking to him, sitting next to him in larger groups, lying next to him by the pool and even sleeping in the same room. We quickly learn that Germán is gay, but what is the deal with Fernando?

This is a question that lingers for most of the film’s 105-minute running time. It always hangs in the background but is pushed centre stage every time Germán peeks at him (we know why), or he glances at Germán (does it mean what we think it means?), or the scantily clad men around them playfully call each other “cocksuckers”. The film also raises a few related but more general questions – ones that almost anyone who is gay has asked themselves at one time or another: What does it mean when someone looks at me? When does a look become a stare? And how do I distinguish between a stare born out of simple curiosity and a stare that is meaningful?

Taekwondo is divided into three interwoven sections: the delicate, silent dance between Germán and Fernando; the many conversations between Diego, Fede (nicknamed “Fatso”), Juan, Lucho, Maxi and Tomás, the majority of which concerns sex with women; and the questionable intentions of Leo, who stalks around in an attempt to get Fernando’s attention.

The film’s major flaw is its handling of the many speaking parts. The second section mentioned above, which consists of loose discussions between various speakers, is particularly problematic because beyond Germán and Fernando, the characters are simply not memorable or well-defined. In fact, it will likely take a second viewing to recognise all the men at the house.

Taekwondo does go overboard by pelting us with close-ups of crotches both covered and exposed, even when the point of view is not connected to anyone in particular. This kind of ogling by the camera, while not exactly comparable to the gross gaze that Abdellatif Kechiche deployed in Blue is the Warmest Colour, is pointless and voids whatever sensuality the shots may have generated if used more discreetly.

If the two directors had utilised the camera as a substitute for specific characters’ point of view, the film would have been infinitely more engaging and immersive. But the gratuitous abundance of full-frontal close-ups simply leads nowhere and becomes annoyingly repetitive. By contrast, scenes like the one in which all nine of the men squeeze into the sauna drip with sensuality precisely because there are no full-frontals. 

All the while, we are grateful that someone as captivating as Epstein was cast to play Germán and that he portrays him as someone who is careful but never pitiful. Germán has no problem being gay, but because he is unfamiliar with the other guys’ sentiments about homosexuality, he doesn’t bring it up. The film’s two comical highlights are the scenes in which he shares his feelings with another gay friend – once over the phone and another time in person.

Berger has always been at his most effective when his stories are simple and focused on two main characters. This was the case in arguably his two best films to date: Plan B and Hawaii. Taekwondo loses time by presenting non-essential storylines and characters. It also negates some of Berger’s trademark sunshine by including a marginal character clearly uncomfortable with his own sexuality. His presence taints the otherwise laid-back, albeit sometimes sexually tense, atmosphere.

But it is fun to see how Berger and Farina work to tease us to breaking point with the promise of something happening. Viewers will have to bide their time, but those who know Berger’s films (this is Farina’s first fiction film behind the camera) can also rest assured that he always delivers in the end.

It might appear that time is standing still in this idyllic summer film, but the small steps that Germán and Fernando take always make us smile out of pure exhilaration for them to realise and benefit from something that is clear to almost everyone else. Taekwondo would have been served better by having fewer in-your-face crotch shots and more clear-cut characters, but the easygoing ambience and the playful camaraderie make for an environment the viewer can easily get used to.

Look out for Marco Berger making a cameo appearance halfway through the film as an anonymous character whose companion is hit in the head with a tennis ball.

Loving (2016)

Never in a rush to get to its well-known conclusion, Jeff Nichols’s Loving builds to a serene but emotionally devastating final scene capping this story about an unassuming couple’s historic Supreme Court battle.

LovingUSA
4*

Director:
Jeff Nichols

Screenwriter:
Jeff Nichols

Director of Photography:
Adam Stone

Running time: 120 minutes

In the opening scene, she tells him she is pregnant. This is the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1958, and they are not yet married, but the news visibly tugs at his heart. These two rarely show any emotion beyond a look of love or fear, but their feelings for each other are never a mystery.

They are Richard and Mildred, and their marriage defied Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law. After spending years raising their children and waiting for the issue to wind its way through the justice system, they finally saw it reach the United States Supreme Court, which would go on to decide the landmark case of Loving v. Virginia in their favour.

Richard being white and Mildred being black, they were allowed to get married in the District of Columbia, which had never enacted any laws against interracial marriages. However, upon returning home to their town in northeast Virginia, they were arrested for unlawfully co-habitating in violation of the state’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924.

Director Jeff Nichols gives subtle hints to the notion that many whites in power at the time saw Richard and Mildred as two people engaging in abominable activity, and that Richard was somehow tarnishing his own race. This idea was commonplace at the time, and one need look no further than the laws in the Southern states at the time, which only prohibited whites from marrying other races but had no problem with non-white races marrying each other.

But despite all the legal restrictions on their love, the couple, portrayed in the film by (non-Americans) Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, keeps their heads down and does their best to make a good home for their children. After a judge rules that they are not allowed to be in Virginia at the same time for the next 25 years, they move to a small apartment in a low-income Washington, D.C., neighbourhood. Richard works on construction projects, while his wife takes care of the growing family at home.

But Mildred misses her family back home and the wide open spaces of rural Virginia where she wants her boys and girl to run around without fear of getting run over by a car or being assaulted by a random stranger in the street. Inspired by the March on Washington in the summer of 1963, she writes a letter to Robert Kennedy, at the time serving as the country’s attorney general, asking for help with their situation. Surprisingly, she gets a phone call from a lawyer at the ACLU who figures this case could ultimately lead to a nationwide repeal of anti-miscegenation laws.

There are only a few points on which the film commits a serious lapse in judgement. Cast in the role of the lawyer, Bernard S. Cohen, is comedian Nick Kroll, who, even in the most somber of circumstances, appears to be on the verge of bursting out laughing. His first appearance in the film is also played for laughs, but Kroll’s brand of comedy, which usually involves him staring awkwardly at someone when his character is in an uncomfortable situation, is the wrong fit for this story and alienates the viewer. This performance is particularly grating given the subdued emotional tone projected by the two leads.

Nichols makes another miscalculation during oral argument at the Supreme Court. While he decides not to show the faces of the justices, he does use the original audio from Chief Justice Earl Warren’s introduction of the case to remind us of the real-world provenance of the story. And yet, he uses Kroll and his voice, as well as Jon Bass, who plays fellow attorney Philip Hirschkop, to address the justices. Had Nichols used the original audio, this scene would have played much better for numerous reasons, not least of which is that Kroll’s performance consistently seeks to convey farce instead of solemnity.

Another moment that appears to belong to a different film results from parallel editing that seeks to heighten the tension in the cheapest of ways: by alternating between tension at work (a heavy bag of cement drops from a great height) and the seemingly carefree adventures of boys running through the neighbourhood streets. The violent climax of the scene is no surprise but wholly unbecoming of Loving‘s generally restrained approach to telling its story.

On the whole, however, the film’s various components – long as they sometimes take to come into view – all fit very tightly together to tell this historic tale of quiet resistance against entrenched injustice. The story of an unassuming couple just seeking to be accepted for being what and feeling how their surname says is told with compassion and focus. And by the time we reach the peaceful final scene and its promise of a future rooted in the soil of Virginia, it is near impossible to keep the tears from flowing.

Año uña (2007)

Año uña uses photographs to tell the story of a sweet but ultimately impractical friendship between a US college student and a Mexican teenager in Mexico City.

Año uña, Year of the NailMexico
4*

Director:
Jonás Cuarón

Screenwriter:
Jonás Cuarón
Director of Photography:
Jonás Cuarón

Running time: 80 minutes

Alternate title: The Year of the Nail

In Jonás Cuarón’s simple but attentive fiction film début, Año uña (The Year of the Nail), we find ourselves rooting for a 14-year-old boy in his quest to be intimate with a female college student. Perhaps it’s because of the genuine likability of this naïve young boy, a horny Mexican teenager named Diego (played by Cuarón’s real-life half-brother, Diego Cataño), or because of the leisurely conversations between him and his crush or because both are in on the game.

Made up entirely of still photographs (around half of them in black-and-white), the film’s form is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s La Jetée. But although the two works are visually similar, at least initially, they have little in common beyond telling their stories at a much more sputtering pace than we’re used to. The reason why Cuarón decided on this approach was not because of any particularly artistic sensibility but because of necessity. Over the course of a year, he had taken thousands of photographs of his then-girlfriend, Eireann Harper, and Cataño interacting with each other. He subsequently reordered the pictures and added new sounds – voiceovers and diegetic dialogue – to shape a different story from the real images.

The resulting sequence of pictures is an array of fleeting moments captured and emphasised for however the filmmaker desires. It moves from greyscale through desatured colour to colour photographs that very obviously originated on film. Some of the images are out of focus, others are very sharp. These are all fleeting moments tied together by sounds, thoughts and bits of dialogue to create a mosaic of an experience that belongs to no one and to everyone.

Occasionally, there is the slightest of movements across a picture to simulate a pan that somewhat changes the composition or plays with the forms inside the frame. Because the film is based on photographs taken of people who were often not aware that they would end up in a motion picture, some of the faces have been blurred, presumably out of respect for their privacy.

The film opens with this explanation:

From 2004 to 2005 I photographed my surroundings.
At the end of the year, I ordered the images in such a way that they suggested the following narrative.
These are documentary images. The moments and characters are real.

Only the story is fictional.

There is some initial setup in which we see Molly (Harper), a US student on an exchange programme in Mexico City who is constantly embarrassed by her loud-mouth Yankee friend, Katie, yearning for a more personal relationship with the country and its people. The first image we get of Diego is accompanied by a voice-over informing us that he jerked off three times the previous evening. And he is obsessed with the idea of seeing his fast-maturing cousin’s breasts.

Traces of Y Tu Mamá También, which Cuarón’s father, Alfonso, had directed just a few years earlier, are easily discernible (oversexed boy lusts after older woman), but it is to the young Cuarón’s credit that he skillfully keeps us wondering about the outcome without ever frustrating our hopes or expectations.

The story plays out over a year during which we see Molly the gringa move from having trouble getting her mouth around words with indiginous origins, like Quetzalcoatl, Tlalnepantla, Chicoloapan and Tlacuitlapa, to fluently saying the Spanish tongue twister that Diego taught her. Meanwhile, Diego develops from a horny 14-year-old to a horny 15-year-old who is infatuated with whichever girl is closest to him, and the most consequential development is that his ingrown toenail (whence the English title) is finally treated. The significance of the nail – slightly uncomfortable when it is there but immediately forgotten after it is removed – is self-evident.

Some of the best moments in the film are those, obviously also drawing from the narrative well of Y Tu Mamá También, in which voice-overs are juxtaposed with each other to create dramatic irony and insight into the characters that would have been difficult in a live-action film. Another point of reference here is the slightly socially awkward interaction between Diane Keaton and Woody Allen’s characters on the balcony in Annie Hall (Allen used subtitles instead of voice-overs).

The spontaneity of shooting with actors is lost here, as the conversations recorded after the fact come across as stilted and unconvincing, although the insistence and the breathy, moaning inflection of Cataño’s voice precisely convey his character’s annoyance at not being able to get what he craves. For some reason, almost all of Molly’s voice-over is produced as a loud whisper, which becomes increasingly bothersome as the film progresses.

In addition, the focus is scattered all over the place: Not only Diego and Molly, but also Diego’s mother, his cousin and a few others get their own scenes and voice-overs that are tangentially related but never an integral part of the central storyline.

The ease and skill with which Cuarón creates comical yet recognisable trains of thought in the teenage Diego’s head is simply remarkable. Año uña is a very funny film because the viewer can identify (with) the often silly notions of romance and intimacy that Diego is dealing with, such as when he considers the possibility of drowning in order for Molly to give him mouth to mouth. But the perspective is always gentle and understanding, and while it misses the hammer blow of a Y Tu Mamá También, it is nonetheless a beautifully conceived and strikingly executed work of story telling.

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.