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

George Lucas

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

George Lucas

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.

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

Javier Fuentes-León

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.

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

Jonás Cuarón

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.

Elephants Never Forget (2004)

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


Lorenzo Vigas
Lorenzo Vigas

Director of Photography:
Héctor Ortega

Original title: Los elefantes nunca olvidan

Running time: 11 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Feast of Stephen (2009)

James Franco applies the language of cinema to adapt an Anthony Hecht poem and produces a work of sexual intensity that nicely dovetails with the films of dedicatee Kenneth Anger.

The Feast of StephenUSA

James Franco

James Franco

Director of Photography:
Christina Voros

Running time: 266 seconds

James Franco’s The Feast of Stephen, a five-minute short film adapted from the eponymous poem by Anthony Hecht, is about sex, violence, violence as sex and sex as violence. Its ambiguous depiction of homoeroticism makes it difficult to determine whether or not it is a fantasy woven from reality, although the director overplays his hand in the second half with an unnecessarily literal portrayal of what was already quite apparent in the first half.

This wordless black-and-white short dedicated to experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger has something in common with one of the director’s earliest films, Fireworks, released more than 60 years earlier in 1947. Anger’s film was about a teenager (played by Anger himself) who goes in search of “relief” and finds it after wading through some sadomasochism. Like Fireworks, Franco’s film touches on the issue of shame and violence but also, eventually, sexual gratification, albeit tinged with violence and scatology, but luckily The Feast of Stephen takes a more serious tack and eschews the camp so often visible in Anger’s oeuvre, as Franco spares us the sight of milk-covered flesh.

The film opens on a basketball court, where four teenage boys – two of them shirtless – are passing the ball and shooting hoops. Along the fence comes a boy, the titular Stephen, wearing long trousers, a long-sleeved T-shirt and glasses – clearly, at odds with the rest of the group. Stephen stares at them, and something they look back at him, straight into the camera. He stares at them, and they start moving in slow motion, their youthful torsos rippling in the afternoon sun. He stares at them and notices how their hands playfully touch each other’s taut bodies. Suddenly, his desire is made manifest by more carnal images of the boys’ genitals. Now, Stephen is staring even more intently, and when one of them looks back, and the camera rushes towards him, it is clear Stephen has been caught out. He bolts off, his secret now out in the open, but the violence that ensues when the quartet of boys catch up to him also makes his innermost thoughts a reality.

The pounding that he gets all over his body, experienced most acutely in his groin, gradually becomes a pounding from behind. At this point, the implication is clear, but this is also the moment at which Franco goes too far in order to emphasise beyond a shadow of a doubt that this act of violence has a strong sexual undertone, as a cut suddenly removes all clothing, and we see Stephen being penetrated by the boys over whom he’d been tripping out. Of course, this moment is as imagined as the earlier moment of nudity that had briefly revealed the boys on court in the buff, and perhaps this prior image forms a sturdy means of support for the later scene, although both intellectually and emotionally it would have benefited from much tighter editing during the sodomy scene.

Despite its last-minute overreach, The Feast of Stephen is a seriously executed film that is thoroughly enjoyable and – unlike many of Franco’s other works – never overstays its welcome. The camera work has a grittiness that fits its subject very well, and while the lead actor comes across as more of a blank canvas than an actual character, the players’ movements are all beautifully coordinated. The film doesn’t have the grace or the sensuality of, say, Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour, but the brutality wrapped in fantasy makes for two easily accessible levels on which to process the events, and in a film less than five minutes long, that is not bad at all.

A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s prelude to his award-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives offers very little but looks exquisite and does hint at a deeper meaning.


Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Director of Photography:
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom

Running time: 17 minutes

Original title: จดหมาย ถึงลุงบุญมี
Transliterated title: Cdh̄māy t̄hụng loong buỵ mī

For the sake of clarity, this review refers to Apichatpong Weerasethakul as the film’s “director” while using the term “filmmaker” to point to the anonymous diegetic individual/s who is/are allegedly making the film in front of our eyes.

Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s short film A Letter to Uncle Boonmee – a trial run  for what would eventually become his Palme d’Or–winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives – eludes explanation to the uninitiated viewer and eschews plot in favour of feeling, which is always a gamble. However, while Weerasethakul does give us a bit more to chew on, it is only in the short film’s closing credits that we get a firm indication of the theme that we were witness to.

The images in A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, all linked to the small town of Nabua, are without a main character. Except for what appears to be an ape-like apparition lurking in the forest, there is only a single individual whose face we clearly see, and he never speaks nor does anything of note – in fact, he barely moves at all, and we certainly don’t know his name nor function in the story. But the director does give a subtle hint, as the man, like all of the handful of other characters we see in the film, wears a military uniform, a feature that receives some weight from a voice-over recalling how “soldiers once occupied this place” and that they “killed and tortured the villagers and forced them to flee to the jungle”. The many portraits we see on the walls inside the cottage presumably pictures of these villagers.

Furthermore, the closing credits are immediately preceded by a black screen carrying the following dedication, which briefly contextualises the action, albeit with extreme hesitation: “For Uncle Boonmee Srigulwong, who remained in northeastern Thailand for his past reincarnations, and for the residents of the village of Nabua who were forced to leave their homes.”

The film starts by repeating the words in the titular letter to the filmmaker’s uncle Boonmee. However, “filmmaker” is a very slippery term here, because neither of the two (different!) voices that speak the letter via voice-over belongs to Weerasethakul. The fact that the two voices audibly do not belong to the same individual is emblematic of the director’s approach to his story, which relishes the mixture of reality and fiction that is apparent at every turn.

In the short letter, reproduced below, the filmmaker talks about the film we are watching and how it likely fails to accurately depict the reality of his uncle’s living conditions. The making of the film is supported by off-screen dialogue later on about the wording of the letter itself, and we get a very modernist breaking of the fourth wall when we see someone swing the matte box away in order to change a lens and thus allow us to “see things more clearly”.

I have been here for a while. I want to see a movie about your life. So I proposed a project about your reincarnations. In my script, your house is in a longan farm surrounded by mountains. But here there are endless plains and rice fields.
Last week, I met a man I thought was your son. He works at the auto garage. But after talking to him, I thought he was your nephew because his father was a policeman who owned hundreds of cows. Judging from your book, I don’t think you owned a lot of cows. And you were a teacher, weren’t you? The man was old. He couldn’t remember his father’s name very well. Might have been Boonmee or Boonma. He said it was a long time ago.
Here in Nabua, there are several houses well-suited for this short film for which I got funding from England. I don’t know what your house looked like. I can’t use the one in my script since it is so different from the ones here. Maybe some parts of these houses would resemble yours.

These words play out on the soundtrack while we watch the camera gracefully track through the empty cottages, devoid of any life but vibrating with absence as we see room after room with bedding on the floor and portraits on the walls. There is a beautiful transition when the last tracking shot eventually opens onto a full-frame view of a golden sunset in the distance, beyond the lush greenery in the foreground. This moment is accompanied by a question as to whether Uncle Boonmee had a different view from his own home compared with the one we see in front of us.

The uncertainty, which extends to the identity of the subject himself, is clear as day in this letter. But it is interesting to note that even though the filmmaker, whoever he is, addresses this letter to someone who is likely already dead, and he is not sure that the final product will reflect his uncle’s reality, he is confident that his uncle has indeed had multiple lives thanks to reincarnation. Perhaps that explains the bizarre egg-shaped object in the garden, which puffs out thick plumes of smoke from inside itself throughout the film without any explanation.

The end of the film includes the abrupt and unexplained appearance of the hairy creature, which might also be the thing or person barely perceptible behind a thin pink curtain in the cottage on two occasions in the film. However, things move very quickly, and then, suddenly, the story is over, if it ever really started.

A Letter to Uncle Boonmee feels disjointed, reaching for mostly uninformative bits of voice-over to compensate for – or perhaps to attempt to mask – the lack of substance. The visuals pique our interest, but the ending will leave most filmgoers (certainly those who haven’t seen the subsequent feature film) scratching their heads and ultimately sinks what comes before.

Lake Tahoe (2008)


Fernando Eimbcke

Fernando Eimbcke

Paula Markovitch
Director of Photography:
Alexis Zabé

Running time: 86 minutes

Lake Tahoe is an acquired taste. This small film by director Fernando Eimbcke consists mostly of static shots and has very little dialogue. It is set in a town so sleepy that the main character’s first act, inexplicably crashing his family’s red Nissan Tsuru on a wide road devoid of any turns, is the most action we’ll hear (we don’t even see the accident) the entire film. The boy’s name is Juan Cardozo, and through seemingly random incidents in which very little happens, we learn something about him in a way that is ultimately very satisfying for those who can stand the wait.

Eimbcke already showed in his début film, the narratively cosy and visually exciting Duck Season (Temporada de patos), that he is interested in characters rather than events. Both films also take place in a very short time frame: Duck Season over a Sunday afternoon, Lake Tahoe presumably on a Saturday morning and into Sunday morning. Both films star Diego Cataño as a taciturn, kind-hearted teenager who has some stuff to deal with. His presence is a big reason why these two films work so well. We can see him thinking behind his big eyes, even though we only have the faintest idea what might be going on in his head, and this mystery, which is never entirely opaque, is effective at keeping the viewer’s attention.

During two-thirds of the film, we get multiple shots of Juan walking around, often in frames that repeat again and again, trying to find someone who can help him fix the car. On his way around the town in which he often seems to be the only one who is (barely) awake, he meets an assortment of oddball characters, from a young mechanic who is a kung fu fanatic to an elderly mechanic who shares breakfast with his boxer dog, Sica, in a scene that becomes ever more touching as the film wears on.

Countless black screens interrupt what little action there is, although the soundtrack is ever-present, making us focus on the small details in the wind that are here one second and have disappeared the next. Most of the shots suggest the same idea, as the frame is empty for significant stretches of time at the beginning at the end of the take, with Juan traversing the screen in the middle. It is like a deadly quiet lake with a ripple of movement that breaks the stasis before it returns to tranquillity once more. 

The theme of loss becomes central to the film towards the third act, as we realise what is gnawing at Juan. But there is a long wait before Eimbcke gives us the information we need, and even his presentation of Juan is an exercise in patience, as we never get a close-up of his face and have to wait a very long time just to see him from closer than in a long shot. Eimbcke’s director of photography, Alexis Zabé, who has worked with Carlos Reygadas and also lensed Eimbcke’s Duck Season, departs from the static shots on at least two occasions. The first time, it works, as Juan escapes from an uncomfortable situation and we suddenly get two short dolly shots. But the second time, when Juan sees his mother crying in the bathroom, there is a slight push-in that is out of sync with the rest of the film.

While the latter shot attempts to elicit some feeling from us, there are a few scenes that are surprisingly effective at addressing our emotions. One involves the old mechanic making an important, albeit spur-of-the-moment, decision that ties in Juan’s own situation, a second is another unexpected scene late at night between Juan and the receptionist from an auto shop, and a third comes in the final scenes between Juan and his brother. Eimbcke, who had already worked so beautifully with children in Duck Season, continues his impressive understanding of their emotions here and gets another impressive performance from the young Cataño whose combination of white and black clothing suggests some inner struggle in the character. 

Lake Tahoe trips up only once, and that is by having a cutaway too soon, during one of the most powerful emotional moments for Juan. But in most other respects, this is a beautiful experience of spending time with a character that very slowly lets his guard down, accepts the gaping hole a loss has left in his life and assumes his new role with as much courage as he can muster. The film is absolutely beautiful, and thanks to Eimbcke and Cataño also eminently watchable.

Duck Hunting (2009)

Lov na raceSlovenia

Rok Biček

Rok Biček

Director of Photography:
Simon Tanšek

Running time: 23 minutes

Original title: Lov na race

One shot early in Rok Biček’s 23-minute Duck Hunting puts our mind at ease even while we feel the narrative tension building. It is a shot around the dinner table, and we have already been introduced to the three main characters in the present. In this particular scene, the story has skipped backwards into the past. The father is seated on our left and one of his sons, Matej, is on the right. Right in front of us, with his back turned towards the camera, is the younger brother, Robi, who is barely moving. For the first few moments of the scene, we see only these three, before the mother’s head suddenly appears from directly behind, or in front of, Robi.

All the while, there is a faint whistling sound, which had already started in the previous scene, many hours earlier out in the woods where the father took his sons duck hunting, and this sound disappears the moment Robi leaves the table halfway through the meal. At that point, about one-third into the film, we still have no idea what is going on, but when the director drops a hint a few minutes later, our mind goes back to this scene of the three men and the almost invisible mother.

Biček, who at the time of production was attending the University of Ljubljana’s Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television, includes very little dialogue in this short film and instead opts for long takes, whose apparent stasis is subverted because they were recorded on a handheld camera.

There is another scene at the dinner table, right at the end of the film, that is even more crushing, as the characters arrive at a kind of catharsis that is far from tidy but fits perfectly with the volatile twists and turns of the taciturn characters.

What makes Duck Hunting such a praiseworthy film (Biček’s second fiction short) is his consistency of form and his skill in straddling the line between giving and withholding information, which results in a work whose meaning we can deduce but which is nonetheless never transparent. “Why did you do it?” Robi screams at his father in the present. Unlike the main character in Biček’s stunning 2013 début feature, Class Enemy (Razredni sovražnik), the father here does not have a chance or is not eloquent enough to defend his actions, but for a long time we don’t even know what those actions are, and we never know with certainty.

Sliding effortlessly between past and present, the film further underscores the connection between the two by repeating one or two scenes in the same spaces in different time periods.

Another bold move was the decision to have no music in the film, which emphasises the silences. Along with the very grainy texture of the images obtained with a 16mm camera, this film’s audiovisuals splendidly complement and reflect the brutality of (what we gather is) the central situation. Although the opening scene drags on a little too long, and the acting in that scene is not particularly great, the rest of the film keeps us absolutely spellbound as it moves between times and from subtle gesture to sudden violence, and it is to Biček’s credit that his 23 minutes contain more ambiguity than most films and fewer words than most scenes.

About Elly (2009)

About EllyIran

Asghar Farhadi
Asghar Farhadi
Director of Photography:
Hossein Jafarian

Running time: 114 minutes

Original title: درباره الی‎
Transliterated title: Darbareye Elly

Because her name is right there in the title, we do all we can in the first act to understand who this mysterious young woman is who has been invited along to the beach by a few other families. She reveals little about her own life, except for being the teacher of the one family’s daughter, but whenever she is not looking, the others talk about her, and in particular they ask the one bachelor in the group, Ahmad, how he is getting along with her.

The woman who invited her, and who seems to be the closest to her, is Sepideh, who gives the impression of being in control of the group and makes decisions she expects everyone else to obey and agree with. But once disaster strikes and Elly goes missing, Sepideh admits she doesn’t even know Elly’s full name. And whatever other details about her life she has, she refuses to share with the group.

Sepideh is a very unlikeable character, at first because she assumes to know best for the increasingly awkward Elly, who wants to leave but is told not to by Sepideh, and then because she obviously knows much more than she is letting on but instead keeps critical information to herself in the name of “honouring” Elly, who has disappeared.

The comparison may seem appropriate, but this is far from being a Persian version of L’Avventura. Whereas Antonioni’s film was much more cynical about human relationships and their longevity even in the face of tragedy, director Asghar Farhadi’s (whose next film, A Separation, would bring him to worldwide attention) About Elly revels in the opposing forces in such a group of individuals who from the outside may seem to constitute a very orderly unit.

Sepideh plays a central role in this enduring tension, as even when she tells her side of the story, or Elly’s story, decisions are made to protect others by continuing the lies, or modifying the official story, which inevitably ends up too weak to be credible and makes these people, most of whom have the purest intentions, look like outright liars. One person who doesn’t lie is the straight-talking Peyman (played by Peiman Ma’adi, who starred as one of the two main characters in A Separation), and the dynamics between him and his wife, Shohreh, throughout the film are fascinating to watch.

Peyman’s son, Arash, nearly drowns when Elly is supposed to watch over him. Meanwhile, she is busy flying a kite on the very same beach. She seems happy but also completely disconnected from her responsibility to watch over the children. Granted, this momentary happiness only masks the pain she feels at having been told to stay put by Sepideh, and in an extended sequence of shots showing her smiling face in close-up as she runs with the kite across the beach, the background completely blurred, we realise her inner world has taken over completely.

The circumstances surrounding Arash’s near-drowning remain murky, as the adults only have the children as witnesses and they are still trying to find more details about Elly’s whereabouts. Shortly before her disappearance, she had said she wanted to leave and go back to Tehran, even if she had to accomplish that on foot. But would she have left her bag and her phone, and not even said goodbye to anyone there? That is the question that hangs above the proceedings for most of the film.

We are not only interested in whether Elly has died or not, but what her disappearance reveals about the relationships between the characters as a result of this tragic event, and while Sepideh certainly bears most of the blame for instigating a sequence of events that turns toxic, the temporary solutions found by family and friends to try and protect her or themselves are always insufficient, insofar as they are always only half-truths or lies.

The image of a car stuck in the wet sand on the beach ends the film, and it is a fitting visual metaphor for the sticky territory in which the characters have unwittingly become entangled because of a few simple missteps, despite Peyman’s best efforts to get to the truth and tell the truth to those who deserve to know it.

One such person is someone very close to Elly, who is much more sympathetic than we are led to believe, and his appearance late in the film proves once more that it is better to know the truth than to hear stories told by others, however close they may appear to be to the tales they are telling.

About Elly is a very engaging ensemble piece that has a handful of characters who are frustrating to watch because we know they are behaving in a way that slows down the gathering of information, but in the end, however much we disagree with their methods, we can understand why they are acting in such a way. Farhadi gives us tiny glimpses of individual characters doing things on their own, isolated from other people, to suggest joy or secrecy or intense pain. He does this without spending excessive energy to highlight a fact easily surmised from the film itself: This is a simple story rendered complex by the actions of people who have their reasons, and the mix of reasons and individuals almost inevitably leads to tension of which the consequences are often impossible to predict.