Simulation (2017)

Simulation, a film from Iran directed by and featuring Abed Abest, cleverly strips its actors and set design to the bone and turns its chronology upside down to address the unspoken. 

Simulation / TamarozIran
4*

Director:
Abed Abest

Screenwriter:
Abed Abest

Director of Photography:
Hamid Khozouie Abyane

Running time: 85 minutes

Original title: تمارض
Transliterated title: Tamaroz

It’s far from a perfect comparison, and the two films go in very different directions, but calling Abed Abest’s Simulation a Persian Dogville is a useful shortcut for saying it has austere, even Brechtian, stage design and deals with very real events and emotions while also being visibly and deliberately artificial. While the two films’ directors find filmic solutions to what is essentially a stage-bound production, the Iranian filmmaker doesn’t have his Danish counterpart Lars von Trier’s radical taste for doom and gloom. And yet, given the setting of Simulation’s first (i.e. final) act, a police station on the Iran-Iraq border, the tone is far from light.

The reason why the first act is also the last act is because the last act turns out to be the first: Abest starts with the climax and then works his way back (similar to, but much less detailed than, Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible). In so doing, he presents us with an inverted chronology of events that unspool until we reach the dramatic moment of stasis when a decision is made that ultimately leads to the tragedy of the film’s opening minutes.

In the opening scene, three young men are brought handcuffed into the police station in Abadan, the site of major conflict during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Accompanying them is Esi, a much older man. This early part of the narrative may very well be the most important, as two conflicting stories quickly emerge. The three young men are accused of attempting to burgle Esi’s home. They deny any wrong doing and say Esi assailed them for no reason whatsoever, even though he had invited them in as his guests. Esi has a very different account, but both sides seem equally passionate and sincere about their version of events.

Simulation‘s first few minutes are very different from anything we are used to seeing in the cinema and already hint at a strong sense of alienation: The opening credits sequence features a particularly unusual approach, namely to show the actors approach and look directly into the camera. They do so mostly one by one, while in the background a giant green screen is impossible to miss. Something else that draws our attention in the film is the fact that some details seem deliberately off. For one, although Esi is continually referred to as an old man, the actor, Danial Khojasteh, is about the same age as the three “young” men and does not behave in a way that suggests he is that much older than they are.

The vibrant green spills over into the rest of the set design, as most of the objects, from doors to tables to mobile phones, are all the same kind of… let’s call it “green-screen green”. In interviews, Abest has suggested that his idea was to allow these coloured objects to serve as types of intra-scenic green screens onto which the viewer can project his or her own imagined colours or textures. In a way, then, it is easy to interpret the green as a kind of freedom for the viewers to add or construct their own ideas. And although the connection between the green here and the green of the 2009 Iranian Green Movement in Iran is never made explicit, it goes without saying that this potential for symbolism will be at the forefront of most viewers’ minds.

However, what the blue sneakers mean (all the character wear exactly the same kind) beyond serving as a facile reference to “blue screen” is much less clear.

The opening scene at the police station, filled as it is with contradictory information about the events earlier that same evening, also creates a sense of dread that will hang over the entire film, no matter how bright the final moments are. In fact, as with Noé’s (admittedly much darker) film, the levity of the conclusion only serves to emphasise the despair of the scenes leading up to it.

The central part of the story takes place at Esi’s home. A man who lost his loved ones during the war (in a wonderfully staged, unexpected flashback inserted between the scene at the police station and the one at his home), Esi has become a rather wealthy businessman and, by the looks of it, a well-established bachelor. When he answers the door late at night, his expression and body movements make it immediately clear he is thrilled that the three young men – Abed (Abest himself), Vahid (Vahid Rad) and Aris (Majid Yousefi) – have paid him a visit. As the evening wears on, it becomes more and more evident he is a gay man, a fact seemingly acknowledged by the director when Esi starts playing an Elton John song on his bright-red piano. It may not be Madonna or Judy Garland, but the signs can only be missed by someone who is wilfully blind. This being a film from a country where homosexual acts are punishable by death, the film doesn’t venture much farther than innuendo.

As the four of them sit on a pair of couches in Esi’s lounge, the camera does something unusual. It divides the scene into blocks without using any cuts. Abest is very skilled at creating the illusion that the action is playing out in real time: Every time the camera moves to focus on a different character or pair of characters, the action “freezes”, meaning the actors stop moving until the camera, with a dramatic flourish, has reached a new spot. In this way, we get the feeling that there are no false cuts. In fact, the editing seamlessly combines different takes, but for those reading the subtitles, these transitions go by almost entirely unnoticed.

It comes as no surprise that Abest starred in the lead in Shahram Mokri’s stunning Fish & Cat (ماهی و گربه), a single-take feature film that was also very creative in its approach to time. 

Abest has said that the film is whatever the viewer chooses it to be, thus neatly putting the onus of proving the presence of controversial themes on the viewer. And yet, despite the sparse décor, there is more than enough information to work with – not only the dialogue, which is so abundant that the film often struggles to distinguish itself from a theatrical production, but also the gestures, the looks and the multitude of sound effects that are deployed. At times, the sound is clear and natural, but at other times there is a slight echo that makes it sound like it was recorded surreptitiously, perhaps by microphones planted on the premises by paranoid authorities.

The meaning of the title is not particularly self-evident (What is the simulation, and what is being simulated? Is the film a simulation of Abest’s imagined story? Of ours?), but we get that the film is an artistic representation rather than a mimetic one. And yet, because the story is easy to follow despite the play with time and design, the viewer is quickly immersed in the action, trying to figure out what comes next by trying to find the intentions behind the actions.

Simulation is creative, smart, daring and unexpectedly engaging.

Viewed at ÍRÁN:CI – the Festival of Iranian Films in Prague 2018.

The Shape of Water (2017)

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

The Shape of WaterUSA
4*

Director:
Guillermo del Toro

Screenwriters:
Guillermo del Toro

Vanessa Taylor
Director of Photography:
Dan Laustsen

Running time: 120 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2017

Interstellar (2014)

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

InterstellarUSA
3*

Director:
Christopher Nolan

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

Running time: 170 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

By the end of the origin trilogy, Star Wars had nowhere else to go but up, and George Lucas manages to complete Anakin Skywalker’s transformation to Darth Vader both believable and frightening.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the SithUSA
3.5*

Director:
George Lucas

Screenwriter:
George Lucas

Director of Photography:
David Tattersall

Running time: 140 minutes

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

“War! The Republic is crumbling under attacks by the ruthless Sith Lord, Count Dooku. There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere.
In a stunning move, the fiendish droid leader, General Grievous, has swept into the Republic capital and kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine, leader of the Galactic Senate.
As the Separatist Droid Army attempts to flee the besieged capital with their valuable hostage, two Jedi Knights lead a desperate mission to rescue the captive Chancellor….”

Lightyears ahead of the two episodes that preceded it, Episode III reinjects colour, real drama and genuine filmmaking flair into the franchise that wilted with Episode I and was beaten to a pulp and left out to dry with the release of Episode II. Besides rounding out a number of character transitions and neatly completing the trilogy, it also answers many of the big origin questions that have hung around for more than 20 years, since the release of the original trilogy in 1977–1983.

From the very first moment, this third instalment in the so-called “prequel trilogy” marks a forceful departure from its dreadful predecessor. It is as simple as an unbroken take, one that is not only visually impressive (it definitely is) but also dramatic in terms of the presentation of its content. Even the opening crawl, provided above, boldly proclaims the nature of the situation in no uncertain terms: “War!”

The elegant unbroken take starts with utter calm, however, as the usual beach of starlight stretches out across the dark skies in front of us. The camera pans downward, as it does nearly every time (the exception was Episode II, when it panned up, but then the film lost its nerve and cut away almost instantly), to the giant dagger-shaped form of a Republic attack cruiser floating in near silence in outer space. The scene is peaceful and calm, and in the background we see the mighty planet of Coruscant with the blinding sun (dis)appearing behind its rim. Two tiny Jedi star fighters whizz towards is, and the camera follows them across the wing as they swoop around the front and down to reveal utter chaos below, where dozens of battleships are shooting at each other.

But this is only the beginning of the fun: The shot, which incorporates very mobile movements as the camera whooshes back and forth past obstacles and even through a cloud of fire, carries on until we spot R2D2 on the wing of a starfighter and immediately deduce this is Anakin’s. Without a moment of hesitation, the film cuts to Anakin’s face inside the cockpit. He is clearly enjoying himself, and for a change (given actor Hayden Christensen’s atrocious performance in Episode II) it is a pleasure to see him because he is fully engaged in the scene.

Anakin and his master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, are on their way to rescue Chancellor Palaptine, who has been kidnapped by Count Dooku, the leader of the separatists. And when they do, a mere 15 minutes into the film, the moment presents Anakin with a major quandary. Having been taunted throughout their fight, with Dooku nudging Anakin to come to the Dark Side, and having seen Obi-Wan injured in the fight with Dooku, Anakin eventually subdues him. He holds the two lightsabers – his own one, which is blue, and Dooku’s red one – in his hands and points them in the form of an X around his throat, trying to control his anger. He is filled with doubt and even says that killing an unarmed man would not be the Jedi way. Palpatine, shackled next to him, disagrees and urges Anakin to decapitate the shocked Dooku. Anakin follows through.

This is but the first of many powerful depictions of the internal turmoil that Anakin has to deal with throughout the development of this part of the story. The soft-spoken but serpentine Palpatine knows exactly how to play the game by gently dangling power in front of Anakin. He feels he deserves it by virtue of the chancellor of the Republic declaring it the right thing. And whenever he feels second-guessed or slighted by the Jedis, who can sense evil in Palpatine’s plans, he sides with the chancellor. But he is always genuinely conflicted as to where his loyalties should lie.

These scenes are riveting, even though we know that Anakin is fast on his way to becoming Darth Vader. This prequel trilogy was never about the destination, however: It was always about the journey, and thus the focus had to be on Anakin’s evolution, which in this episode is sharp and does not have the meandering qualities that made the first two instalments so exhausting.

In visual terms, this instalment leaves the previous two in the dust. Not only do we get the first glimpse of Padmé wearing her hair in the form of two bagel buns on either side of her head (as her daughter, Leia, did in the original trilogy), but the special effects are far superior to the mediocrity of the seemingly ever-present rear projection of Episode II, and the colour palette is colder but stronger: blacks, blues and purples seem to permeate the world this time around.

When Palpatine decides to appoint Anakin, who is not a Jedi master but merely an apprentice, to the Jedi Council (a decision that has major repercussions), they walk side by side inside the chancellor’s office, and shortly before the scene wipes to another location, the lighting makes them appear as two silhouettes – partners in darkness. It is a brief moment but speaks to a visual ingenuity that is unusual for Lucas.

With regard to the editing, Lucas also fashions two remarkable alternating sequences of lightsaber duels. The first contrasts the giant fight between Yoda and Palpatine after he has become the irrevocably evil Darth Sidious, first set inside the chancellor’s office and then in the middle of the Senate, and between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin, after he has gone to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader. The second, only a few scenes later, is an interesting juxtaposition of Padmé giving birth and Darth Vader being fitted with his black armor.

The humour in the film is also much better integrated and does not draw attention to itself, as such attempts failed miserably in the first two episodes. The duel between General Grievous, the commander of the separatists’ Droid Army, and Obi-Wan Kenobi is light-hearted and reminds us that not all fight scenes need to be equally sombre. As Kenobi, McGregor is excellent in bringing this sprightliness to the fight, even in the face of Grievous’s four lightsabers.

Unfortunately, a few awkward attempts at romantic dialogue remain, as in this exchange:

Anakin: You are so beautiful.
Padmé: It’s only because I’m so in love.
Anakin: No! It’s because I’m so in love with you…!

Poor Padmé also spends almost the entirety of the film locked up in her room on Coruscant, where she either waits in anguish for the return of her lover and father of her offspring or confronts him about putting up a wall between them out of fear.

The film regularly returns to the Prophecy, in which Qui-Gon Jinn had believed and which Obi-Wan also trusts, that Anakin will bring balance to the Force. However, while the Force will be brought back into balance thanks to Anakin, Yoda also points out that it is a “prophecy that misread could have been”, meaning the easiest explanation is not always the right one. Three more instalments await, and while Anakin is instrumental in returning balance, he will not do so alone, nor directly.

With the possible exception of Episode IV, this is likely the best Star Wars film that Lucas directed. Although still not far from laughable at many points, Christensen’s performance has improved, and we can hear his character’s frustration in his tired “Yes, master” whenever he is told to wait, to be patient, not to do what it is he feels entitled to do. He is racked with fear, confused and lost, looking for his place, but while the final scenes on the volcanic planet of Mustafar are too long and look rather uninteresting, the climax is exactly what we had been waiting for all along.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Episode II: Attack of the Clones, the longest of all the instalments in the franchise, is also by far the worst, as it flounders under the weight of a terrible actor, awful visuals and an all-round lack of chemistry.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the ClonesUSA
2*

Director:
George Lucas

Screenwriters:
George Lucas

Jonathan Hales
Director of Photography:
David Tattersall

Running time: 140 minutes

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

“There is unrest in the Galactic Senate. Several thousand solar systems have declared their intentions to leave the Republic.
This separatist movement, under the leadership of the mysterious Count Dooku, has made it difficult for the limited number of Jedi Knights to maintain peace and order in the galaxy.
Senator Amidala, the former Queen of Naboo, is returning to the Galactic Senate to vote on the critical issue of creating an ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC to assist the overwhelmed Jedi….”

Episode II: Attack of the Clones, the longest out of all the instalments in the first two Star Wars trilogies, is all about power. Unfortunately, it is also wholly pre-occupied with its main protagonist’s slide into arrogant delusions fuelled by his love for and loss of his mother. The protagonist, of course, is Anakin Skywalker, who even as this episode opens is a petulant little twerp seeking to undermine authority at every turn for the simple reason that he is a prodigy.

In this film, and its sequel, Anakin is played by Hayden Christensen, whose performance in the lead is so ham-handed it easily qualifies as the worst acting in any of the Star Wars films, handily beating out the amphibious, high-pitched, super-annoying Jar Jar Binks for this misfortune. He is on the ascent (he first appears in this film in a lift going up), seeking counsel from the Phantom Menace himself, Senator Palpatine, who has become chancellor of the Galactic Senate and is adroitly playing off many parties against each other, staying in control of both realms until the Dark Side triumphs.

A large chunk of the emotional core of this film is wrapped up in Anakin’s desire to see and save his mother, who had been left behind on Tatooine in Episode I. Anakin has nightmares, once conveyed by showing him alone in bed at night, sweating and writhing in anguish as the camera tracks closer on his face before he wakes with a start. No, George Lucas is not the most visually creative filmmaker out there, and this shot goes to show that.

The visual mediocrity continues as the colour palettes in scenes on many different planets comprise yellows, reds and browns. But while the visuals are uninspiring, the plot is packed with details that can sometimes be very dense for the uninitiated and include shifting alliances and the various characters’ opaque motives that make us question whether they can be trusted or not, and whether Anakin’s descent into darkness will sweep anyone else away with him.

The tipping point is Anakin’s mother, whom he tracks down after a long quest only to find her on the verge of death. Her long absence from his life, filled only by longing (both for her and, somewhat creepily, for Senator Amidala), and ultimately her passing fill him with enormous rage at his inability to control his own destiny and those close to him. It is plain to see that this anger, as Master Yoda predicted in Episode I, will lead to hate (which he targets at his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, who is wisely reluctant to let him do whatever he wants), and hate will lead to suffering. Shortly after his mother’s death, Anakin throws one of his frequent temper tantrums and yells, “I will be the most powerful Jedi ever!”

As he did in Episode I, Lucas again places the viewer inside the film at unexpected and inexplicable points by very quickly showing us the points of view of both Anakin (inside the club in Coruscant’s Galactic City) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (upon his arrival at Dex’s Diner, in an industrial area of Galactic City), which means characters look straight into the camera. These moments last a very short amount of time and seem disconnected and at odds with the rest of the visual style. 

The titular Clone Wars, of which this film only shows the first clash, involves a clone army cultivated on a distant planet named Kamino. While the Republic was facing challenges and a potential schism, a former Jedi Council member had started breeding a vast army of clones (made from a prominent bounty hunter, Jango Fett), and now that the separatists were gaining in strength, this army appears to come in handy. However, its existence has remained a mystery to even the Jedi Council, which realises the Dark Side’s strength has managed to blind them to developments in the galaxy.

These developments also include the rise of Chancellor Palpatine, who in this film manages to secure emergency powers that puts him in complete control of the Republic, and his first action upon taking power is to “create” an army (albeit one that already exists in the form of clones and already numbers in the hundreds of thousands) to beat back the separatists, led by Count Dooku. Dooku is perhaps the film’s most complex character but is woefully underdeveloped. He used to be a Jedi and trained as a Padawan under Yoda, but he left the Republic and became a Sith. In other words, Dooku gets his power from the Dark Side. And yet, he tells the truth when he informs a sceptical Obi-Wan that the Republic is falling into the hands of a Sith, although his motivations are unclear, because this Sith (Palpatine, also known as Darth Sidious) is also Dooku’s own master.

The film’s highlight, without a doubt, is the lightsaber scene in which Yoda takes on Dooku. It is the first time we see Yoda, the grand Jedi Master, wield the sword of the Jedis, and his quick manoeuvrability is as impressive as it is unexpected for this tiny, slow-speaking creature that usually moves about with a walking stick.

But this is by far the worst Star Wars episode, and the myriad reasons are all tied up in Anakin Skywalker. Christensen does not have a single elegant moment, save when he is lying lifeless after his arm has been severed in a lightsaber duel. His whiny character’s public displays of arrange and hysteria are unbecoming of an adult that the viewer can take seriously. He is devoid of self-reflection and stubbornly assumes he will get his way, like a spoilt brat. Also, his relationship with Padmé is based on obsession rather than dialogue, and her pledge of love to him when they are captured rings hollow and reinforces the feeling that we are watching a soap opera powered by lightsabers.

Although rich in detail, the story is poorly told, the images are terribly boring, and the central relationship plays itself out on very implausible terms while one-half of the couple simply cannot connect with the viewer because of his revoltingly ineffective portrayal of a being with human emotions. This is not only an attack by the clones but an attack on the pleasure the Star Wars in its other instalments represents for a world of fans.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Despite its long gestation and its release more than a decade after the original trilogy, the Star Wars origin story (Episode I) is one of the worst instalments in the entire series.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom MenaceUSA
2.5*

Director:
George Lucas

Screenwriter:
George Lucas

Director of Photography:
David Tattersall

Running time: 135 minutes

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

“Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.
Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.
While the congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict….”

Thus reads the opening crawl of the first instalment of the Star Wars series. It is lengthy (that final paragraph is a single, 35-word sentence), mentions taxation in the opening paragraph and is generally uninspiring. All in all, this is a terrible way to start a franchise, but luckily Episode I had history on its side: A trilogy of films, Episodes IV–VI, released between 1977 and 1983, had already gained a mass following and laid a firm fictional foundation by the time this origin story was released in 1999.

Episode I contains its share of dramatic irony, because thanks to the other films we have the benefit of foresight regarding many of its characters’ destinies. Nonetheless, it is surprising that director George Lucas presents key moments with a complete lack of energy or flair. Consider the first meeting between Anakin Skywalker, here an 8-year-old boy, and his future bride, Padmé, or the first time the astro droid R2D2 lays its eye on C3PO, its eventual partner through thick and thin. These moments are not visually highlighted, and there is nothing to suggest their future importance, even though Anakin asking whether Padmé is an angel is kind of cute.

But then, it is generally accepted that the instalments directed by Star Wars creator Lucas were mostly dull in comparison with those that were not. Episode I, in the works for a decade and a half after the original trilogy, disappointed many people who had grown up on this series loosely based on Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人 / Kakushi toride no san akunin). Lucas fumbles with comic timing again and again and again, mostly because of the ludicrous character named Jar Jar Binks, a creature that is both physically and tonally awkward and reaches for laughs at many an occasion by saying “How wude!” with a pout that does not elicit a single laugh but rather a queasy shrug from the viewer.

The plot in this first film revolves around Queen Padmé Amidala, who is strung up so tightly in a variety of elaborate costumes that she can barely speak a word when she opens her mouth. This gimmick gets old very quickly and minimises the charm and sparkle she has when she is out of her costume, as in the first half of the film when she pretends to be a hand maiden and spends a great deal of time in the company of the young Anakin Skywalker.

Queen Amidala’s planet of Naboo has been taken over by a Japanese-accented Neimoidians. They are receiving guidance from a shadowy figure who only appears to them as a hologram (thus, he is the “Phantom Menace” in the title, although this term never appears in the film), whom we know from later films as the Emperor. Lucas finally reveals the identity of this individual during the final moments thanks to a quick pan that ends on the face of someone who has gained more and more power throughout the film. 

In the meantime, the origin story of Anakin Skywalker’s journey to becoming a Jedi starts with a chance stop on the planet of Tatooine, where two Jedis, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, are seeking help while the queen’s planet is under occupation. They meet Anakin, whose midi-chlorian levels are off the charts, meaning not only that the Force is strong with him but also that he might very well be “The One” who will “bring balance to the Force”. Although just 8 years old, he is remarkably gifted at podracing (the film’s podrace is shown in full and lasts an exhausting 10 minutes) and has even built his own droid, C3PO.

Qui-Gon is so sure of himself that he decides to buy Anakin’s freedom and take him to the Jedi Council on the city-planet of Coruscant, where the boy undergoes a test not unlike the one the Tibetan lamas administer to find the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. Master Yoda, who cannot see into the future but can sense negativity radiating back from it (possibly by means of past films), says Anakin may very well be The One, but his anger and fear, tied to his mother who was left behind on Tatooine, could lead him to the Dark Side. “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

This may be one of the worst chronologically first films ever in a series. While the technology in 1999 had certainly improved over that of the 1970s and 1980s, and Lucas was able to bring to life a civilisation like Coruscant and stage a fast-paced (albeit overlong) podrace inside canyons, there are major flaws. For one, the humanoid characters like Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Anakin and Padmé all look above the faces of the CGI characters, like Jar Jar, when they are speaking to each other. That is very distracting and should not be happening.

Another problem is the chemistry between Anakin and his mother, Shmi. Although the latter was played by the legendary Pernille August, she speaks her dialogue as if she is performing a line reading. Meanwhile, Anakin, played by Jake Lloyd, is at times perfectly restrained, but when he is called on to show any kind of emotion ranging from sadness to elation, he rushes headlong towards the histrionic side of the spectrum. And when these two characters interact with each other in the same scene, the result is absolutely frigid and unaffecting.

Lucas also made the peculiar choice to break the fourth wall and put the viewer in the position of a droid, C3PO, on three occasions during a scene when Anakin is speaking to him (and looking directly at it/him). This feels completely out of sync with the rest of the filmmaking style and is not grounded in any apparent perspective.

The highlight of this first installment is the climactic lightsaber battle between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan on the one side and the evil Sith, Darth Maul (basically, a nemesis of the Jedis), who wields a red double-sided lightsaber, on the other. While the location is limited, the stakes cannot be higher, and for those who have already seen Episode IV, the death of Qui-Gon will have at least a narrative, if not a visual, parallel with the death of Obi-Wan, who survives the attack here.

Episode I lays some of the groundwork for the rest of the story, but despite having a wealth of elements at its disposal and knowing full well that most people who saw it at the time were already familiar with the characters’ eventual development, the film is disappointingly reticent about presenting its material in a way that would enthuse its base. Lucas’s almost laser-like focus on mining for a laugh at the end of scenes, usually by deploying Jar Jar Binks, is as misguided a strategy as he could have embarked on, and ultimately the film feels exceptionally inept.

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

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

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the JediUSA
3.5*

Director:
Richard Marquand

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

Running time: 130 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April’s Daughter (2017)

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

April's Daughter / Las hijas de AbrilMexico
4*

Director:
Michel Franco
Screenwriter:

Michel Franco
Director of Photography:
Yves Cape

Running time: 105 minutes

Original title: Las hijas de Abril

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2017

Tom of Finland (2017)

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

Tom of FinlandFinland
3*

Director:
Dome Karukoski
Screenwriter:
Aleksi Bardy

Director of Photography:
Lasse Frank

Running time: 115 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milada (2017)

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

MiladaCzech Republic
2.5*

Director:
David Mrnka

Screenwriters:
David Mrnka
Robert J. Conant
Robert Gant

Director of Photography:
Martin Štrba

Running time: 125 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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