The Ides of March (2011)

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

ides-of-marchUSA
2*

Director:
George Clooney

Screenwriters:
George Clooney

Beau Willimon
Grant Heslov
Director of Photography:
Phedon Papamichael

Running time: 100 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By the Sea (2015)

Intimate story of crumbling relationship, directed by Angelina Jolie (Pitt), is pure self-indulgence for director, not the viewer.

By the SeaUSA
2*

Director:
Angelina Jolie Pitt

Screenwriter:
Angelina Jolie Pitt

Director of Photography:
Christian Berger

Running time: 125 minutes

Do you remember the scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Second World War–set Inglourious Basterds in which U.S. Lieutenant Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt, attends a film premiere in Nazi-occupied Paris and pretends to be an Italian? “Bahn-dzhohr-no”, he says, oblivious to the deep Southern accent that escapes his lips and thus turning an otherwise tense moment into comedic gold.

By the Sea, a film set in the 1970s on the French Riviera and directed by Pitt’s wife, Angelina Jolie (who on this production is credited as Angelina Jolie Pitt), poses a similar issue for the actor, but this time his accent is not played for laughs, and that is a big problem. The words leave the mouth of his character, Roland, without a problem, and there is no hint of the accent he played up in Tarantino’s film, but his inarticulate speech is near incomprehensible to the French-speaking viewer. And yet, his French interlocutor, a bar owner named Marcel (Niels Arestrup), does not bat an eye. Perhaps he is used to his clients mumbling.

The rest of the film is also a mess. Angelina Jolie Pitt has never pouted more in any of her roles, and that is saying something. She stars as Vanessa, a former dancer and Roland’s wife of 14 years, who spends all of her time in their hotel room, motionless on the bed, with a tear slowly rolling down her check, or looking out onto the cove in front of the villa-esque hotel, or draped over the furniture, or catching some sun on the balcony while sporting obscenely big sunglasses.

The story is way too small for the two-hours-plus running time: Having recently been through a devastating tragedy that the film acknowledges in one of the first scenes and then makes unnecessarily explicit nearly two hours later, the couple temporarily relocates to the South of France so that Roland, a novelist, can write his next big work. No prizes for those who can guess the title in advance. But he spends most of his time getting drunk at Chez Marcel while a depressed and heavily medicated Vanessa fades into the wallpaper.

Luckily for Vanessa, she discovers a peephole in their wall and starts spying on the newlyweds next door, living vicariously through their sexual gymnastics as she misses out on such intimacy in her own life. As time passes, Roland joins her, and they do grow closer, although the painful episode in their lives remains unaddressed until it is almost too late.

The images are absolutely stunning, and so is Jolie Pitt’s wardrobe, but the richness of the physical exteriors cannot make up for the sad emotional interiors that never get properly fleshed out. Instead, Jolie Pitt piles on the visuals, with some striking editing (including a magnificent cut from the couple in bed at night to Roland alone in bed in the morning) and very brief but repetitive and ultimately ludicrous inserts of indefinable liquids that supposedly give a sense of Vanessa’s state of mind.

One of the few good moments occurs almost as an afterthought. While the main contrast is between Roland and Vanessa on the one side and their neighbours, the French couple, on the other, Roland also meets up with an elderly couple on a bench at the water’s edge one day. The conversation is very short, but the affection and understanding these two people have for each other are immediately obvious.

We catch a glimpse of them again later at the bar, where they are holding hands and talking like the good friends they continue to be after decades of marriage. The loquacious but sensitive Marcel also tells Roland how much he misses his wife who recently passed away, and all of these stories serve to isolate Roland in a bubble of melancholia that he resists by ordering drink after drink.

At the heart of the story, however, is the stasis and the decay of Roland and Vanessa’s relationship. Early on, the camera blatantly tells us where the hurt lies, when Vanessa goes grocery shopping and sees a child, whose innocent face we see in close-up … twice. Unfortunately, the tension fades into the background as neither Roland nor Vanessa wants to address the nagging strain on their marriage, and no one ever raises their voice until very late in the final act. Vanessa starts to play a game she does not understand, Roland becomes jealous, and they try to grow closer again by watching a kind of porn: the French couple’s raunchy workouts.

By the Sea is certainly not as bad as Guy Ritchie’s laughable Swept Away, but it is far off the mark. Drowning in stylistic flamboyance and with a narrative that is spread very thin, the film shows that its director, as she made clear with Unbroken, has enormous talent for visual showiness but lacks the skills to keep us interested when the story falls short of its extended running time.

The Bling Ring (2013)

Celebrity-obsessed teenagers who seek to emulate their favourite stars by stealing, wearing their stuff, get their comeuppance in terrible Sofia Coppola production.

bling-ringUSA
2*

Director:
Sofia Coppola

Screenwriter:
Sofia Coppola

Directors of Photography:
Christopher Blauvelt

Harris Savides

Running time: 90 minutes

Three of Sofia Coppola’s five films have been about teenagers. The Virgin Suicides, her début feature, was a poetic period drama about five enigmatic sisters who committed suicide; Marie Antoinette was another period drama but also an explosion of colour and exuberance from beginning to end and featured a teenage queen being her own kind of rebel. The Bling Ring is a mindless 90-minute film – one that could have told its story in less than half the time – based on real events about bored teenagers who robbed celebrities, wore their clothes and posted photos of their stylish lifestyle on Facebook.

Even the premise doesn’t sound particularly enticing, and Coppola simply cannot make her own product appear less shallow than the frequent discussions about shoes and dresses in which the vapid characters engage. This is a kind of Sex and the City, but whose protagonists are not yet allowed to drink, apparently have no sex drive and spend their evenings in the Hollywood Hills where they steal a few items from celebrities who live in excess (and don’t even notice the multiple burglaries) before getting coked out of their skulls.

Although the group changes over time, the main characters are Rebecca (Katie Chang) and Marc (Israel Broussard), who first break into a friend’s house before ganging up with others to up the stakes and look online for the addresses of celebrities who are currently out of town – like Paris Hilton, most of the time.

A worthy point could have been made about the addiction some people have with following the lives of the rich and the famous to the point where they know when someone’s house will be open for a ransacking. The consequences of such a lack of privacy could have been interesting in a better film, but Coppola is wholly uninterested in the larger ramifications of her story.

 

In keeping with the omission of their surnames on their Facebook profiles, the director mostly prefers to treat her characters like cardboard, virtually forbidding growth and never focusing on the supposed friendship or camaraderie between the individuals. Right at the beginning, Marc is clearly an outcast at his new school, where he first meets Rebecca, but over time and thanks to a much-improved wardrobe, he gets significantly more attention wherever he goes. Yet such developments are not examined with any kind of a critical eye and may even be irrelevant to the shallow-as-a-puddle storyline.

Some big-name celebrities appear as themselves in the film, including the aforementioned Hilton and the star of Coppola’s other two teenage films, Kirsten Dunst. One would think the presence of such stars would help us identify with the group of teenagers who believe themselves to be entitled to the glamorous lifestyles of the stars whose every move they follow online. But there is a glitch, and that is Emma Watson.

Watson, best known for her role as Hermione in the Harry Potter films, is immediately recognisable as a star, which makes it very difficult for the viewer to take her antics very seriously, especially as she is surrounded by cast members we have never seen before.

But all is not lost. Despite a constant feeling of déjà vu, we can also appreciate some very crafty conceptions that suggest the film was indeed made by someone with a filmmaker’s eye. The first example comes one night when the teenagers are driving without paying attention to the road, and a car comes out of nowhere seemingly straight at us from the side, and the vehicle suddenly starts to spin. It is a powerful reminder that these children cannot remain in their fantasy land for too long, but unfortunately (for us and for them) such reminders are too few and far between.

There is also a shot that stands out because of its relative minimalism as compared with the others scenes of housebreaking. Rebecca and Marc arrive at the home of television star Audrina Patridge, run through the house, which has enormous glass windows on all sides, switching lights on and off and finally making off with their loot. The shot is unbroken, taken from far away though shot to zoom in slowly throughout the scene, while the action unspools in near silence, which is something the rest of the film could have benefitted from.

There is also another scene with gunplay that is incredibly tense despite the structural flaw that we know the character of Marc will survive to tell the tale physically unharmed.

One major problem the film has is its inability to make its characters human. In the past, even when her characters were the target of derision, Coppola put them in a certain context that explained their behaviour or at least made us laugh. The Bling Ring rarely makes us break a smile and mostly just bores us to death with a story whose conclusion is revealed in the film’s opening minutes. The friendship between Marc and Rebecca could have been fertile ground for an examination of any number of issues, including betrayal, which is hinted at early on, but we get no human-interest angle.

Frankly, although this is an improvement on her horrendous previous film, Somewhere, we expected much more from Sofia Coppola.

Love (2015)

An epic film about obsession, rutting and a lot of fluids (once shooting straight at the viewer), but nothing about love.

love-gaspar-noeFrance/Belgium
2*

Director:
Gaspar Noé

Screenwriter:
Gaspar Noé

Director of Photography:
Benoît Debie

Running time: 135 minutes

An ode to genitalia, vigorous rutting and the release of bodily fluids, Gaspar Noé’s Love is the polar opposite of Michael Haneke’s similarly titled Amour. For one, its two main characters are immensely unlikeable: Instead of two octagenarians who have spent a lifetime together and are reaching the end of their lives, we have here a chronically oversexed American named Murphy and the “love” of his life, Electra, who satisfies him provided he is not already pounding away between someone else’s open legs.

Love has little to do with the intense emotions suggested by its title and is rather an examination (albeit superficial) of sexual obsession, with the filmmaker intent on showing the audience as many graphic details as possible. Murphy’s tool shoots his life essence as often as possible – at one point directly in the direction of the viewer, who might be catching the film at one of its 3-D screenings. If this were exciting and not laughable, it may have qualified as pornography, but as things stand, this is much worse than most kinds of triple-X entertainment.

The poster of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s infamous Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma) appears on the wall of the main characters’ apartment, for no particular reason except self-interest (it is one of Noé’s favourite films), and maybe because it serves as a kind of reminder that we should view this material as controversial but worthwhile, too.

That is difficult to do, as the very thin story is barely worth a discussion, except for the inclusion of the hardcore sex scenes, which appear to be unsimulated, and in which full penetration takes place at least some of the time. Unlike a film such as Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, however, there is no underlying interest in seeing these characters growing closer before they grow apart. Noé focuses on the stagnant relationship, held together by bouts of mostly routine sexual intercourse, and he does not allow us to experience any elation or regret at the rare developments we are witness to.

The film’s first shot recalls the heady, steamy days of Catherine Breillat’s Romance X, as we look down vertically onto the naked bodies of Murphy and his wife, Omi, nearly immobile except for them slowly using their hands to bring each other to orgasm. When the moment comes, as it were, Omi laps up Murphy’s juice. This surprisingly explicit action immediately takes the viewer aback, because such a scene is not at all an everyday occurrence in the cinema, at least in theaters without sticky seats.

Noé, perhaps best known for his brutal examination of love, assault and revenge in Irreversible (Irréversible), here intimates, through his main character who is a film school graduate, that movies should be about “blood, sperm and tears”, and this film lives up to the expected trio of fluids.

But even more copious than Murphy’s seed is his use of the dreaded c-word to cuss out Electra, who is right to suspect he is cheating on her with any girl that shows a passing interest in having him inside her. We simply cannot care one little bit about Murphy’s meltdown, even though the film seems to suggest that this is the only story that is of any interest.

The film’s major flaw, and there are many to choose from, is that it does not enable us to empathise with its main character. Even worse, we are not particularly interested in him or his way of thinking, because his actions appear to be primitive, and although far from unexpected, his betrayal of his girlfriend is despicable.

The acting is terrible, and especially the scenes of high melodrama, namely the shouting matches between him and his girlfriend, are laughably amateurish. Contrast them with the break-up scene in Blue is the Warmest Colour, and you will quickly see what these scenes are supposed to look like if they are to have even a shred of credibility.

Noé, whose unconventional use of the cinematic medium in both visual and narrative terms was laudable in Irreversible, here tries to imitate Jean-Luc Godard’s physical manipulation of the medium by adding black-screen flashes to the entire film, which are not only irritating but pointlessly exhibitionist and silly. Early on in the film, we also get a splashy, full-screen-text definition of Murphy’s Law, because, you know, the main character is called “Murphy”.

And then there is director Gaspar Noé’s masturbatory references to himself. Not only is Murphy’s son named “Gaspar”, but Murphy’s ex hooks up with an “artist” named Noé, played by – you guessed it – the director himself. These names are repeated often enough for us to recognise what Noé is up to, but we never get close to understanding why he is behaving like such a neophyte. Who, except the most amateur of filmmakers, would engage in such ill-conceived grandstanding?

Because of their unconventional nature, the unreserved depictions of sex often harm whatever serious intent Noé had with his story, and some of the particularly graphic moments elicit laughter instead of compassion. This film had no reason to be. Its director obviously thought people would get a kick from unsimulated sex, but unlike Lars von Trier’s amazing look at sex in the double-volume modern-day masterpiece Nymphomaniac, Noé’s film is a fluff piece that has as much to do with love as with serious filmmaking, which is almost nothing at all.

Machete Kills (2013)

The sequel to Machete is a sad film that leaves us despondent and makes us yearn for the audacity of the original.

machete-killsUSA
2*

Director:
Robert Rodriguez

Screenwriter:
Kyle Ward

Director of Photography:
Robert Rodriguez

Running time: 110 minutes

Once you’ve ripped out someone’s intestines and used them to scale a building, there’s really no way for you to up the ante. But in a nod to the film’s predecessor, one of many references to countless films, Robert Rodriguez’s Machete Kills charges ahead and lets the title character rip out his assailant’s intestines once more and sling them into a helicopter’s fast-moving rotor blade so that we can have blood and guts splatter all over the camera lens.

If you never saw the first Machete, you may not mind this as much, but anyone seeing this follow-up will miss the good ol’ times of Machete’s former adventures. This sequel, and its main character, is sad from beginning to end, and we simply cannot allow ourselves to enjoy such a waste of talent, especially as the melancholy of the sometimes sardonic Machete is completely unbecoming.

The man with the machete, who used to be a Federale, still loves to wield his weapon of choice, slicing and dicing his enemies with the poise of a master chef. But in this installment, he has to face some revolutionary technology that is straight from a B-movie director’s wet dream. Case in point: a defective molecular disruptor that turns people inside out. If he can successfully evade this device and the women wearing bras fitted out with machine guns, he may just save the world.

Opening with a fake trailer for this sequel’s sequel, titled Machete Kills Again … in Space!, the film doesn’t beat about the bush about its intentions: We are being prepared – or set up – for the ultimate finale that will take place in a galaxy not very far away, where technology from many decades ago will vie for our attention amid some expected carnage. The narrator boldly claims that Leonardo DiCaprio may be starring, then admits the actor is subject to change.

It all seems a bit silly, but while we watch this second part of the now-official trilogy, we discover many of the characters are the same, and by the end of the film they’re all being beamed up beyond the exosphere. Rodriguez’s version of space looks incredibly boring, but perhaps he will bring the sexy back.

Unfortunately, there is no such sexiness on display in Machete Kills. The first film’s many moments of excess, which had some of the same flippancy of Tarantino’s Death Proof but without all the stylistic flourishes, provided a sensational spectacle.

At present, however, it seems Rodriguez’s imagination has run dry, as he makes wholly inappropriate references, including Mission: Impossible and the television series 24. At one point, the soundtrack even alludes to James Bond.

As it is, the film has too many famous faces anyway – Lady Gaga, Mel Gibson, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Antonio Banderas are all villains, some more super than others – although, more often than not, they are just masks that hide the true identity of yet another mask. Rodriguez must have been aware how ridiculous this approach is, as was made clear at the time John Woo’s version of Mission: Impossible was released, but even when he is using it for fun, it becomes annoying.

The only face that brings a smile to ours is the one put forward by the overly ambitious U.S. President Rathcock, played by the one actor who has nothing to lose: Charlie Sheen, credited by his real name Carlos Estévez. Rathcock wants to prove he can live up to both parts of his name: For the first part, he employs Machete, but the second he can do himself.

He tells Machete he will become a U.S. citizen if he accepts the mission to kill Mendez, a Mexican drug lord who has a missile pointed straight at the United States. In this way, he indirectly visits his wrath upon his enemy. But his campaign videos speak of his pornographic lust for violence, as he poses with enormous weaponry to make clear his intention to safeguard the Second Amendment. He mixes some of the more objectionable traits of recent U.S. presidents to create a skirt-chasing cowboy that is both a caricature and frighteningly familiar.

But with Machete’s name in the title, one would have expected him to have more gravitas in the film itself, instead of being a bit of a side show to all the opulent tastelessness we have to witness, including the bit with the intestines. Machete is demeaned as a character because one of his most impressive skills turns out to be his ability to dodge bullets, or to be sprayed and still survive. Even in a film that aspires to being a B-movie, such a lack of imagination is unacceptable.

Let’s hope the third film is either wildly different, with pre-production time heavily spent on character development, or gets scrapped altogether – preferably with a mean machete.

The Iron Lady (2011)

A generally chaotic biopic about one of the most influential leaders of the 1980s nearly makes Maggie wholly irrelevant.

iron-ladyUK
2*

Director:
Phyllida Lloyd

Screenwriter:
Abi Morgan

Director of Photography:
Elliott Davis

Running time: 105 minutes

After the success of her début feature, Mamma Mia!, director Phyllida Lloyd set her sights on the toothy-smiled Lady Thatcher, widely known as the “Iron Lady”, who is famous, among other things, for her power hairstyle, the very 1960s bouffant. Like so many other things, however, the origins of this nickname would be left out of the eponymous film.

From 1979 until her ouster in 1990, Thatcher served as the United Kingdom’s first female prime minister. She had a decisive influence on world history, but Lloyd’s fainthearted approach to this grand lady’s extraordinary combination of ambition and inflexibility has produced a film with even less dramatic weight than the cinematic rendition of the ABBA fairy tale.

The Iron Lady first introduces us to Thatcher in the present day, in a corner shop in London, where she buys a pint of milk without being recognised by anyone. Now, anyone familiar with Thatcher will know the importance of milk in her biography: As education secretary in the 1970s, her decision to end the government’s funding of milk in schools earned her the nickname “Margaret Thatcher the Milk Snatcher”. But the film never even mentions this episode.

The frail Thatcher shuffles back to her apartment, milk in hand, where husband Dennis is waiting to have breakfast with her. Moments later, Thatcher’s secretary sticks her head through the door, and from her point of view we see the former prime minister having breakfast alone. Thatcher’s mental state is precarious at best, and her grip on reality is slipping away on a daily basis, a debilitating condition aggravated by her heavy drinking.

The Iron Lady could have been forgiven for book-ending the real flesh of the film – Thatcher’s political trajectory and the narrative of her premiership – with this tragic glimpse of her current mental state. Instead, it tries to emulate Thatcher’s erratic state of mind by flitting back and forth between the past and the present in seemingly haphazard fashion and piling on the scenes between her and an imaginary Dennis.

A Beautiful Mind, the Oscar-winning 2001 film about Nobel Prize–winning economist John Nash’s struggles with schizophrenia, at least had the good sense to slot his delusions into a proper plot. By contrast, The Iron Lady is a mess comparable to the state of the United Kingdom at the beginning and the end of Thatcher’s reign. The film is not a depiction of her life story as much as it is of her state of mind in the present, and this is infinitely less interesting than the actual flow of history and her role in it.

Once one of the most powerful figures on the global political stage, Thatcher’s deterioration could have provided a compelling contrast to her story of human perseverance and a woman’s struggle to beat the odds stacked against her. But the film keeps us at arm’s length throughout: Content to present us with a near-copy of the woman, thanks to the makeup and Meryl Streep’s excellent portrayal, it fails to place her in a network of faces, and even as her own face fills the screen, we never know what she thinks or what she fears.

Moments like the one in which Thatcher’s daughter tells her, likely for the umpteenth time, that Dennis is no longer with them, or another in which she dances with her long-deceased hubby, sadly evoke no feeling from us because they are wooden set pieces that provide no insight into her own perception of these moments.

The dialogue is equally unworthy of an actress like Streep: While the screenwriter may have considered it a priority to either steep Thatcher’s statements in dramatic irony or use them as a knowing representation of her political ideology, the effect on the film is devastating and makes it seem robotic rather than human.

Important landmarks, from Thatcher’s election as prime minister and her determined show of British sovereignty by launching the Falklands War, to the many IRA bombings, her meeting with fellow conservative-in-arms Ronald Reagan and the eventual fall of communism, are dutifully but sloppily ticked off one by one, without narrative intelligence or any hint of their impact on Thatcher’s own life.

The Iron Lady does little to dig beneath the surface of this enigmatic woman. It is a botched film – amateurish at best, despite Streep’s performance – that should have starved to death without anyone batting an eye, just like Thatcher did to the Irish Republicans.

Antonia. (2015)

Glimpse at the life of 20-something Italian poetess Antonia Pozzi lacks spirit, insight into her hysterical final act.

antoniaItaly
2*

Director:
Ferdinando Cito Filomarino

Screenwriter:
Ferdinando Cito Filomarino

Carlo Salsa
Director of Photography:
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom

Running time: 95 minutes

Oh, how terribly hard life must have been as a 20-something poetess living off her family’s fortune while writing poems that are never published during her lifetime. And how awful it must be to pine after two or three individuals that either shy away from her father’s criticism cutting potential suitors down to size or reject her advances and prefer to focus on their careers instead of life with her.

Antonia Pozzi, we are told via a title card at the beginning of Ferdinando Cito Filomarino’s Antonia., a sumptuous recreation of the final years of her life, is one of Italy’s best 20th-century poets. However, she never saw her work accepted for publication while she was still alive, before she committed suicide out of a teenage-like compulsion to put an end to heartbreak when things don’t work out the way she thought they would.

Actress Linda Caridi’s portrayal of the most productive but most melancholic years of the life of this writer born into a very well-to-do family in Milan is commendable for its consistency and for never dissolving into kitsch. The film also has beautiful imagery that ranges from sweeping vistas of the Dolemites to an exquisitely framed shot of an interaction that takes place in a way that immediately conveys distance instead of the expected intimacy. But despite the technical mastery of the medium, the story fails to engage us because some of the young woman’s actions are simply childish, and while the camera is deployed in a way that does not attract attention to itself, there are also ridiculous close-ups of pages filled with the work, published much later, of this woman whose “struggles” we witness here.

But let us be honest, these are not struggles. She lives a life of luxury at home, exquisitely decked out by the film’s production designer Bruno Duarte, plies her passion for photography and seems to be rather skilled at developing her own pictures (presumably in her own dark room). She also has friends who respect her and has an outlet for her emotions in the form of her poetry. Perhaps that is why the two suicide attempts we witness do not elicit the tiniest bit of empathy from us.

This is Filomarino’s first feature. His previous film, a 20-minute short entitled Diarchy (Diarchia), starred Louis Garrel and Alba Rohrwacher as half-siblings who receive a visit from an acquaintance at their parents’ villa, and things suddenly get out of hand. The director showed he has not only the talent to put together a visually striking film but also a strong voice of his own with which he addressed issues of class by means of a thriller that in its final shot suddenly turns into a mystery.

But Antonia. is surprisingly lacking in layers, and while the editing does seek to sometimes fold different moments in time onto each other, the effect is shallow and dull. It is easy to blame the upper-class setting that is devoid of any serious struggle or dilemma, but the screenplay deserves most of the blame. Producer Luca Guadagnino’s similarly situated I Am Love (Io sono l’amore) was a tour de force because of its beauty, its performances and above all its wholly relatable human emotions and conflicts that included secrecy, lust and betrayal. By contrast, Antonia. is like a piece of smoothly polished marble that neither conveys a discernible form nor elicits an emotional reaction from the observer.

At one point, without any warning, Filomarino slows down his already lethargic production to play an entire song on the soundtrack while we watch Pozzi’s naked back , buttocks slightly exposed, while she is lying on the bed, presumably overcome by sadness or angst, or both, but we are even left out of the loop here, because we do not get to see her face.

Antonia. is not pretentious (although the title certainly could have done without the ridiculous full stop), but it certainly does not entertain nor does it penetrate the head or the soul of its main character. The decision to give us close-ups of her published work, wholly devoid of atmosphere, is unforgivable. It plays a big role in dragging this film about a calm but spoilt woman – who had fits of hysteria when her relationships did not work out – down to the banal and compares poorly to an opening shot of a Rodin sculpture. Surely, one of Italy’s best 20th-century poets was more interesting than this.

 Viewed at the 2015 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Miracle (2013)

Attempt to show mental problems of a girl in Slovak working class is a failure about as dismal as the central character’s prospects in life.

zazrak-miracleSlovakia/Czech Republic
2*

Director:
Juraj Lehotský

Screenwriters:
Martin Leščák

Juraj Lehotský
Director of Photography:
Noro Hudec

Running time: 80 minutes

Miracle (Zázrak) by documentary filmmaker Juraj Lehotský is a fiction film that was clearly influenced by the work of the Dardenne brothers. Unfortunately, a very flimsy storyline, continual jumps in the narrative and a main character who is about as inactive and unlikeable as they come produce a film that is equally uninspiring and far removed from the Dardennes’ studies of the working class.

We first meet Ela, from the Malacky District, the country’s westernmost area, asleep in the car; she is on her way to a correctional facility, where she will spend an indeterminate period of time recuperating with many other girls her age whose scarred arms speak volumes about their emotional state. Ela is expressionless for almost the entire film, but she is also nearly speechless, refusing to share her problems or thoughts because she is certain no one will understand her or care for her.

She had a breakdown when her mother started dating a man Ela describes as “a moron”, but for the most part Ela is annoyed that the relationship between her and her mother is non-existent, and that she has, for all intents and purposes, lost both of her parents.

Having established the disintegration of family life, it is perhaps no surprise that Ela soon discovers she is pregnant, but without a high-school diploma, no money and few prospects, any hope of taking care of herself, never mind a child, is far-fetched at best. Roby, the father of her child, is a drug addict who lives in a small storage room on the side of the highway and already has a child, whom he has never spoken to.

At the facility in the woods where she discovers her pregnancy after a fainting spell, she tells another girl that Roby had caught her stealing something in the shop where he works, and because he didn’t know what to do with her, they ended up together. That’s not exactly the stuff dreams are made of, but Ela seems convinced – despite the evidence to the contrary – Roby would support her if she just escaped from her temporary home.

Ela shows almost no growth throughout the film; we cannot empathise with her because we know nothing of her life prior to the events depicted here (it seems she never had any friends, or at least anyone who would care about where she now finds herself), and because she treats her mother much worse than her mother treats her, we actually end up sympathising with the mother, who is certainly not without faults of her own.

In general, Ela is not just a problem child but seems like a genuinely stupid individual who makes her own life hard, irritates those around her and doesn’t have any social skills. She insults her stepfather even though her boyfriend is exactly the same kind of drone and has a drug habit to boot, and to get money when they need to pay back the drug dealers, she offers to become a prostitute, only to close up like a clam when she has to perform for her new clients.

Miracle‘s director of photography, Noro Hudec, is also at fault here, because all the scenes of Ela having sex are shot from behind her partner, which obscures her face and leaves us with absolute no idea what she is thinking or feeling, thereby making her more of an object than a human participant.

Ela is generally so unpleasant we actually root for her to have an abortion out of fear that the world would be polluted with another one like her in it. Her cantankerousness isn’t helped by the fact scenes don’t evolve but are rather shown as dots that we simply cannot connect in a smooth way. The film is filled with impressions, mostly just showing Ela’s unsmiling face, that do not present us with a complete character.

At one point, Ela gets out of her mother’s car in a huff and storms down the highway. Instead of showing us what happens when her mother catches up to her, there is a cut to a later scene that suggests she didn’t see her mother again, which is difficult to believe.

Miracle is a badly executed product that, even at a short running time of 78 minutes, feels like a mess the characters have got themselves stuck in and cannot escape. The only miracle here is that the film was made at all.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2013

Diana (2013)

Film about the late princess of Wales shows her reckless, romantic sides but marks a terrible Anglophone début for its revered German director.

dianaUK
2*

Director:
Oliver Hirschbiegel

Screenwriter:
Stephen Jeffreys

Director of Photography:
Rainer Klausmann

Running time: 115 minutes

With Diana, director Oliver Hirschbiegel, who made a film about Adolf Hitler in 2004 (Der Untergang, released for the English-speaking market under the title Downfall), has created a movie about another figure who is not exactly loved in her own country. Though not generating the same kind of vitriol as Margaret Thatcher, the late princess of Wales was thought to be enjoying the limelight a little more than she let on when she was publicly denouncing the British press’s lack of respect for her privacy.

The film only focuses on the last two years of her life, and in particular her on-again, off-again relationship with cardiologist Hasnat Khan. It is easy to see why Hirschbiegel was drawn to this project, as this is again a historical character who was a point of conversation and always in the public eye. Far from empathising with her, the director shows the situation in which she finds herself – at the mercy and yet simultaneously at the beck and call of Buckingham Palace – and her inability to realise how difficult it would be to make a relationship work with someone who cherishes his privacy much more than she does, and for whom hers is an alien world.

Khan seems like a very intelligent man who would give Diana the world if he could, but he refuses to give up his own identity. While the princess claims she is not asking him to do that, she simply fails to realise what an impact the constant flashing of the paparazzi’s cameras – or, for that matter, the hush-hush, the whispering or the finger-pointing in the street or in a restaurant – has on the life of an otherwise ordinary citizen. Having lived with such trifles for a long time already, she simply cannot sympathise with how little desire Khan has to interact with the nosy press.

We are shown what a narcissist Diana was by her constant looks in the mirror, and that goes some way towards explaining her actions late in the film, when she intimately plays along with members of the press, hinting at where she will be so she can be photographed and thus annoy “the Windsors” with her antics. She was anything but a damsel in distress when it came to the media; on the contrary, it almost seems she would start to drool Pavlov-style at the click of a shutter.

But we never get closer to her than did all the tabloids that covered her for so many years. While we see some details about her relationship with Khan, enormous chunks of her life are left out. She interacts with her own children in one single scene, and by the time we meet them she is seeing them off at the airport. For a woman who boasts about having four mobile phones, such an absence of communication between her and her children is impossible to understand.

Poor Naomi Watts, though not given much to work with in the title role, doesn’t meet our expectations either, as her delivery is often histrionic, and especially in the recreation of the well-publicised BBC television with Martin Bashir, Watts tries to interpret rather than mimic the real Diana but ends up appearing robotic and embarrassing.

Hirschbiegel nearly gets into Diana’s mind when she meets famed South African heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard (who performed the world’s first heart transplant) at an event in Italy and opens up about her love for Khan, but instead of asking him about his own experience reconciling his public and his private lives, she doesn’t even flinch when she asks him to find a job for her boyfriend so they can move abroad. The scene isn’t helped either by actor Michael Byrne, who plays Barnard, making a truly ghastly attempt at an Afrikaans accent.

The viewer will have many questions, most pressing of which is probably why Diana dons a wig only some of the time instead of carrying it around with her to avoid being recognised. But here is one of the most famous women in the world prancing around the streets of London at 3 a.m., completely exposed. Such lunacy does not elicit empathy, and neither does her self-pitying piano rendition of Bach’s “Aria”, which she performs not once but twice.

Diana famously said there were three people in her marriage with Prince Charles, referring to his mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles, but going by this film, even if they were only two, the marriage would have been too crowded with her ego taking up so much space.

This is a story about a very troubled woman whose problems we are supposed to know from the real world and not because the film tells us or even hints at them, and such a reliance on facts outside the immediate world of the film nearly sinks the production, because it undercuts its very existence. That, on top of the slightly deranged central character whom we never really warm up to, the flat delivery of mediocre dialogue and truly odd directing choices (the opening scene prepares us for a Hitchcockian thriller), makes this film just another run-of-the-mill biopic.

Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015)

Sadly, another case where it is (far) better to read the book than watch the movie.

hitchcock-truffautUSA/France
2*

Director:
Kent Jones
Screenwriters:
Kent Jones
Serge Toubiana
Directors of Photography:
Nick Bentgen, Daniel Cowen, Eric Gautier, Mihai Malaimare Jr., Lisa Rinzler and Genta Tamaki

Running time: 80 minutes

It may share a title with one of the most accessible studies of a filmmaker ever published, but in his documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, director Kent Jones (assisted here on the screenplay by Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana) forgot to take a page from the very book with which it shares a title, namely by presenting the facts and presenting them in a way that would be compelling.

What we end up with here is a messy assortment of thoughts and reflections on the Master of Suspense, countless extracts from his films (none of which is indicated to the uninitiated) and a mish-mash of audio excerpts taken from the legendary eight-day interview back in 1962 between the young but ultimately immensely influential French film critic/director François Truffaut and the aging sage who had been thrilling the masses for many decades with his tales of murder but whose status as one of the cinema’s great auteurs was still underappreciated, Alfred Hitchcock.

In the film, we meet 10 directors, among whom only David Fincher proclaims a personal connection with the book, first published in 1966, which contains a wide-ranging discussion between the two cinephiles of all of Hitchcock’s films up to that point, just four short of the ultimate tally by the time he passed away in 1980. The conversation, which sadly was not filmed but only recorded, was facilitated by the bilingual Helen Scott, who gets only one shout-out here without any further information about her. Truffaut spoke no English, and Hitchcock spoke no French, so Scott interpreted back and forth between them from morning till late afternoon every day for more than a week.

Besides Fincher, some of the most loquacious speakers here are French directors Arnaud Desplechin and Olivier Assayas, with speed talker Martin Scorsese also called upon to share his views of Hitchcock’s most famous works. However, it is wholly unclear why these particular filmmakers and their ilk, including Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Paul Schrader, Peter Bogdanovich, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and the little-known James Grey, are recounting their impressions. Had we listened to someone like Brian de Palma, or Steven Spielberg, perhaps we could have learned something about tension, art and entertainment, but while these particular filmmakers are amiable enough, it remains a mystery why they were chosen to share their opinions of Hitchcock. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, they’re no François Truffaut.

Time and again, we return to the question of whether Hitchcock was an entertainer or an artist, a doubt he even expressed to Truffaut. Predictably, the film leans very heavily towards the latter, as was the intention of Truffaut at the time, who along with his colleagues at the Cahiers du cinéma film monthly extolled the Hollywood-based British director for being the force that drives every one of his films, in other words for being an “auteur”.

In the words of Truffaut, the work of an auteur might not always be good, but it is always better than the work of a non-auteur (he used the examples of French filmmakers Jean Renoir and Jean Delannoy as representatives of these two respective kinds of directors).

Hitchcock/Truffaut, unsure of its own raison d’être, turns towards armchair psychoanalysis in its second half, as the directors, most of whom are too young to have met Hitchcock, speculate about the fetish objects in Hitch’s films. Fortunately, we are spared any significant amount of discussion about the blonde actresses he employed, but the topic of dreams does come up, and it is truly puzzling that there is no mention of Spellbound, which was Hitchcock’s big “dream” film and also dealt very cynically with psychoanalysis.

Most frustrating is an extended sequence that encompasses an analysis of Vertigo, during which we learn precious little, except that the film works not because of its narrative, which is deeply flawed and more than a little silly, but because it is, in the words of Scorsese, “poetry”. Such bland statements about Hitchcock the artist, as opposed to Hitchcock the mass entertainer, bring absolutely nothing to our understanding of the director’s undeniable appeal.

What would seem to be the most important point of discussion is one that is mentioned all too briefly: Hitchcock’s problem with realism, especially following the brutal reality of World War II.

Scorsese admits that Vertigo has a “spirit of realism”, but that the film cannot possibly be described as realistic. This is in fact a larger issue in the director’s works and ultimately led to his excommunication from the world of entertainment because of his stubborn refusal to renounce outdated techniques such as rear projection. This gimmick, often utilised in studio pictures during the age of black-and-white cinema, made Marnie — released in 1964 in between the French New Wave and in the middle of the British New Wave, both of which focused on the lives of people in the middle or the bottom half of society and whose films were shot on location — look downright laughable.

Truffaut, who was just 30 years of age at the time he conducted the interview in 1962, is always a magnetic speaker, his enthusiasm for Hitchcock palpable, and it is a shame Jones only very superficially compares an incident in the Frenchman’s début feature, The 400 Blows (les 400 Coups) with a famous story Hitchcock often told. But he fails to share with the audience, for example, that Truffaut asked himself “What would Hitch do?” when he shot the suspenseful scene in which the rebellious Antoine Doinel’s mother shows up at school to confront him about his lies.

It is all well and good to assemble a few friends to talk about a man who was a giant in the industry before they came along, but this film does not contribute to a deeper understanding of the man, his life or his films. At best, it may serve as a starting point for students who need to write a film review for their high-school English class. Those who did not know anything about Hitchcock or Truffaut before watching the film might very well learn the basics, but for everyone else, this film offers less than the bare minimum. Go out and buy the book instead.

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.

Viewed at the San Sebastián International Film Festival 2015