Taekwondo (2016)

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

TaekwondoArgentina
3.5*

Directors:
Marco Berger

Martín Farina
Screenwriter:
Marco Berger

Director of Photography:
Martín Farina

Running time: 105 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God’s Own Country (2017)

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

God's Own CountryUK
3.5*

Director:
Francis Lee

Screenwriter:
Francis Lee

Director of Photography:
Joshua James Richards

Running time: 105 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viewed at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival.

Arrival (2016)

Arrival makes its mark with an ingenious use of the concept of time and a curious portrayal of aliens, but the soppiness of a central relationship is this work’s major flaw.

ArrivalUSA
3.5*

Director:
Denis Villeneuve

Screenwriter:
Eric Heisserer

Director of Photography:
Bradford Young

Running time: 115 minutes

Despite its ever more sentimental bent and its simplistic good guy/bad guy dynamics, Denis Villeneuve’s science-fiction film Arrival is a cleverly constructed tale of first contact between humans and aliens and has a satisfying twist at its core.

The twist has to do with time, and more specifically with viewing events not in bits and pieces advancing from A to B to C, from one day to the next, but as an all-encompassing whole seen all at once. In this way, the domino effect is no longer at play, and cause and effect disappear into a new space-time continuum that until now had been illustrated the best by the “Cause and Effect” episode of the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series, which depicts the shaping of the present thanks to future events being anticipated through contact with the past.

The film’s emotion-laden opening sequence, which introduces us to single mother and renowned linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), quickly moves from one beat to the next as her baby daughter grows up and turns into a teenager before suddenly falling ill and dying of a rare illness. This episode is firmly in our heads not only because it kicks the narrative into gear but also because Villeneuve returns to it again and again and again throughout the rest of the film. But while Banks’s recollection of these moments is perceived as melancholy memories, something else is happening, and we have to recalibrate our sense of time in a clever way.

The idea of viewing a story – never mind one’s own life – as a whole rather than in its constituent parts is an intimidating proposition, but such an approach is central to communication (and action) in Arrival, because the aliens that arrive in their gigantic grey shell-shaped pods and touch down in a desolate expanse of land in Montana communicate in precisely this way.

Their signs consist not of distinct words but of circular signs that convey a complete overview of both meaning and feeling and can range from the basic to the hypercomplex. And for Banks to understand their message, her brain needs to start thinking about life in such a way, too, affirming the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis that language also transforms our perception of life itself. Thus, by acquiring a language that sees the beginning and the end rolled up into one, she starts seeing her own life that way as well, including events she is yet to experience.

Of course, she needs a foil in the shape of research partner and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Renner’s part is woefully underdeveloped, however. Beyond wanting to jump straight into asking the aliens about Fibonacci numbers without understanding that mathematics is not a particularly useful language for basic communication, he appears not to do all that much except support Banks on her surprisingly successful English as a Foreign Intergalactic Language course with the aliens. These two are sent by the government to ascertain the purpose of the visit by the aliens, which have landed at 12 spots on the globe but remained hidden inside their shell-shaped spacecrafts.

Villeneuve, whose film has traces of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, particularly in the scoring by master composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, with whom he also collaborated on Sicario, uses Steven Spielberg’s well-known technique (from Close Encounters but most famously from Jaws) of delaying a major introduction. The aliens themselves (which, unlike in most other films, are not particularly anthropoid but look very much like the spider in Villeneuve’s Enemy, albeit with seven instead of eight legs, thus earning them the label “heptapods”) are almost never completely visible.

But more generally, the director does not do justice to the intelligence of his story. He beats the relationship between Banks and her daughter to death with too many inserts while failing to convey Banks’s perception of the frequency of these images. But with the exception of a life-changing, humanity-saving flash-forward in the final act, an exception that proves the rule, he doesn’t cast his net any farther to provide other interesting examples of using consciousness about time past, present and future in an unexpected way.

Villeneuve, who captured the suspense in Sicario so well, is surprisingly inept when it comes to creating tension, and he creates a Hunt for Red October moment by having the camera point straight at a team member who will betray them all. And he does this not once but multiple times. In fact, it is much more blatant than the infamous introduction to the cook (later revealed to be a traitor) in John McTiernan’s 1990 film.

The film has some beautiful moments, including the already mentioned flash forward during the climax, as well as a voiceover delivered by Renner to explain the heptapods, much like he is narrating a documentary about them years into the future. But its presentation of the global collaboration and suspicion between the groups trying to investigate the aliens is incredibly stilted, and when we hear that the Sudan is planning to attack the aliens, it is difficult not to burst out laughing.

The sentimentality in Arrival may be a bit much to stomach, and there are simply too many inserts with Banks and her daughter, but the flexibility of time and the way in which it is made visible in the film bring us another perspective that might just trickle down into other science-fiction films in the future.

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation tackles America’s original sin with a mesmerising lead performance by the director, but Parker would have benefitted from honing his skills first before bringing this weighty topic to the big screen.

birth-of-a-nationUSA
3.5*

Director:
Nate Parker

Screenwriter:
Nate Parker

Director of Photography:
Elliot Davis

Running time: 120 minutes

Jacques Rivette would have been horrified by one shot towards the very end of The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s historic depiction of an unsuccessful uprising among the slave-owning population of south-eastern Virginia in the early 19th-century. Starting with a close-up of a black man hung by the neck and dangling from a tree, the camera slowly and all too elegantly tracks back slowly to reveal six more people – men, women and children – who have suffered the same fate.

The sharp contrast between the brutality these people have suffered and the sophistication of the visuals is similar to the oft-cited indictment of a shot in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1960 film, Kapò, which led Rivette, at the time a film critic for the Cahiers du cinéma and already a filmmaker in his own right, to pen a scathing article on the use of a dolly shot to transform the abhorrent – his article was titled “On Abjection” – into something pretty and digestible.

Parker wrote and directed The Birth of a Nation 100 years after DW Griffith’s eponymous epic about the Civil War that is often berated for its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan and its shocking presentation of black characters. He also stars in the lead role as Nat Turner, a black preacher who is employed by his owner and childhood friend, Samuel, to keep other slaves in line by talking to them about God’s love for them and his desire for them to work hard so that one day, presumably after a lifetime of abuse, they can reach heaven.

Turner, who shared his last name with his owner, as was the usage at the time, has a face we cannot look away from, and Parker’s performance is soft yet riveting. He is a reluctant hero; his awakening is gradual and one that he evidently wants to repress because he knows the likely outcome. And yet, after turning too God to soothe the pain of slavery, blunt the anger he and his fellow slaves feel and talk away the daily abuse, he finally recognises that the Bible has at least as many points justifying an uprising as it has relenting to domination by another.

We first meet Turner as a young boy, the son of slaves working on an estate in an outwardly idyllic setting: the lush green forests of Virginia. It goes without saying that the social environment is altogether very different, and despite the desire of the owner’s daughter to raise the precocious Nat in their home to read the Bible (other books are for whites only, she warns), the power structure is immediately clear as Nat’s own mother has no say in the matter.

Over time, he sees the monstrous way in which slave owners in the vicinity handle their workers, especially Raymond Cobb, the ruthless man who went after his father. And while he manages to ignore the harrowing cruelty, it ultimately affects his life directly when two women in his life are raped by smiling white gentlemen. One can almost hear the words of Ezekiel 25:17, made famous by Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, resonate louder and louder as the injustices build on each other with alarming normalcy: “I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.”

Unfortunately, there is a palpable sense that this is the film of a first-time filmmaker. For all its meandering, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave always felt like the work of a director with a vision, a firm hand and a sense for quality. The Birth of a Nation has a powerful overarching story and a notable though all-too-brief third act, but the camerawork is forgettable (when it is not objectionable, as in the example at the top of the review), shots of hallucinations with backlit angels are beyond silly, and the performance of the actor playing the young Nat is too serious and controlled.

The director also underestimates his audience, for example when he recaps the major moments of hatred that Nat has witnessed – all of which we have seen – before burning the words of 1 Samuel 15:2 into the screen as a way to tell us that things are about to change big-time. This kind of repetition assumes the viewer has not been paying attention, even though the iniquities are always immediately apparent and often gruesome to watch. 

The Birth of a Nation has a theme and a story every bit as important as those of other major films about slavery, but the depiction is often watered down for mass consumption, the story is too slight, and the execution is too amateurish to have a great impact on the viewer. Except for telling a story that really happened but had not been brought to the screen until now, the film does not distinguish itself from its brothers and sisters and is a missed opportunity. However, it does provide a much-needed corrective to D.W. Griffith’s unabashedly racist rendering of black Americans.

Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2016.

The Angels’ Share (2012)

Ken Loach goes easy on the grit, promotes the inspirational side of this dramatic fairy tale in which Scottish whisky plays a central role. 

Angels’ ShareUK
3.5*

Director:
Ken Loach

Screenwriter:
Paul Laverty

Director of Photography:
Robbie Ryan

Running time: 100 minutes

Ken Loach is not exactly known for the flippant nature of his films. He has, together with fellow British director Mike Leigh, carved out the gritty social realist niche of his country’s film industry and has done so methodically over more than four decades since one of his first films, Kes, burst onto the screen in 1969.

His primary focus on the working class and his obviously sincere attempts to capture their toil and struggles, and represent them by actors in a fictional film, has gained him a large following of filmgoers who perceive the cinema as a tool to bring such naturalism to people’s attention.

In The Angels’ Share, he still follows that line, though the territory he stakes out is a bit more obviously cinematic than one would have expected from him. Nonetheless, the film’s best bits are all firmly tied to the central, slightly contrived, thrust of the narrative, and oddly enough the bits of social drama we would have guessed to be Loach’s strong suit come across as little more than an afterthought.

Set in Glasgow, the film opens with a gorgeous introductory sequence in juvenile court, where many young boys and girls are mostly sentenced to community service for their various crimes. One of the boys is a young man called Robbie (Paul Brannigan), who has a scar across his face, which he got, we soon learn, one night when he was walking the streets while coked up and decided it would be a good idea to kick a random stranger to within an inch of his life.

We never see the rest of Robbie’s family, and he spends most of his evenings on a mattress at a friend’s apartment. He has just become a father, but his girlfriend’s family has no intention of allowing him to associate with his new-born son. There are other young men, too, who threaten to beat him up if they see him around, and the fear he has for his well-being is as warranted as it is constant.

These threats manifest themselves in a few small scenes of mild violence, but Robbie doesn’t seem to live in any fear and refuses to let the young hoodlums get to him. This storyline doesn’t always come across as coherently as it should, as Robbie’s girlfriend appears and disappears for the sake of a narrative that seems to pretend it has powerful domestic questions to resolve, but actually this is just padding for the other storyline.

This other part of the film is much more interesting, though it is by no means exceptional. It has to do with Robbie’s friendship with Harry (John Henshaw), the father-like guard on duty during the community service hours, from whom he learns all about whisky and discovers he has a natural talent for appreciating this malt spirit. He is noticed by a whisky collector, Thaddeus (Roger Allam), who is impressed by Robbie’s knowledge and feeling for the drink. And the time Robbie has spent in jail comes in handy enough when he recognises the potential money to be made from the whisky industry.

Like magic dust on the grim, directionless lives of the main characters, most of them involved in community service projects after run-ins with the law, the “angels’ share” in the title refers to the small fraction of whisky that disappears over time while it is kept in the oak barrels. It evaporates, and is therefore handed to the angels, as it were. The film’s intention is to make whisky a kind of golden elixir that gives Robbie a new lease on life, or perhaps a new life altogether, pulling him up into the ranks of honest work, and for this purpose the drink is well-chosen.

Like the work of fellow countryman Leigh, Loach draws very credible performances from his actors, many of whom, including lead actor Brannigan, had never starred in a film before. There is very little in the film that feels acted or staged, with the exception of Robbie’s girlfriend, who sometimes delivers her lines with visibly less poise than her fellow cast members.

The Angels’ Share is performed in a very strong Glaswegian accent that is not always easy to follow, though the actions and the general ambience of the film are put onscreen very well and allow viewers outside Glasgow to follow the storyline and easily empathise with these characters. While issues of drugs and poverty are touched on, the film has an optimistic approach to the representation of this working-class segment of the population and seeks to inspire the viewer.

This inspirational approach produces something a bit like a fairy tale that may not be credible to everyone, but it makes for a film well worth watching.

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.

elefantes-nunca-olvidanMexico/Venezuela
3.5*

Director:
Lorenzo Vigas
Screenwriter:
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 their scene of the 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 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, and 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.

From Afar (2015)

On the streets of Caracas, father issues push two men – the one in his late 50s, the other barely out of school – together into an ambiguous relationship that defies explanation until it’s too late.

from-afarVenezuela/Mexico
3.5*

Director:
Lorenzo Vigas

Screenwriter:
Lorenzo Vigas

Director of Photography:
Sergio Armstrong

Running time: 90 minutes

Original title: Desde allá

He doesn’t blink. Almost never. He has money; they don’t. But for them to get the money, they have to expose themselves to his gaze until climax.

“He” is Armando (Alfredo Castro), a dental prostheticist in Caracas, Venezuela. “They” are young boys in wife-beaters who hang out on the street and can always do with an extra buck. One of them is Élder, who has a girlfriend but gets lured into Armando’s flat before violently taking the money to establish his manliness, or rather, his non-homosexuality (he constantly refers to Armando as an “old faggot”), and then fleeing the scene.

Armando, one of the two leads in Lorenzo Vigas’s From Afar, is an enigma. His apartment is immaculate but very quiet, and visitors are always for-pay. He has established a certain rhythm, and even when things don’t go as planned, he merely executes his plan as before, convinced that this time, somehow, the result will be different. But the viewer has good reason to be on edge, particularly because of the ominous but absolutely ravishing opening scene, shot in very shallow focus out on the streets of the capital, where Armando is on the prowl, visually isolated from everyone around him. This opening scene bookends strikingly with the deep-focus final scene, also set in downtown Caracas.

Armando has almost no social interaction with anyone except those he solicits with a heavy wad of cash – often in public. In an early scene, he shows up at his sister’s apartment. There is a short, hazy conversation about their father, who is back in the city, and the tension between Armando and his sister is thick enough to cut with a knife. But the rage remains pent-up, and the father, whom we never see up close but always “from afar”, wholly unapproachable.

In the meantime, Élder develops a relationship with Armando that is neither sexual nor friendly but rather one of convenience: Élder, who works in an auto shop and has no problem bringing in business directly from cars parked on the streets of Caracas, gets a sugar daddy who pays for whatever he needs, while Armando has some real human contact for what we assume is the first time in years.

Both of these characters suffer from a lifetime of daddy issues, however, and it is impossible to ignore Armando’s role as a father figure in the young man’s life. At the same time, however, Venezuela does not appear to be the most hospitable area for a relationship between two men, and they both have their ways of hiding their emotions and interest when in public. Unfortunately, this reservedness extends even into the private sphere, and we rarely get a glimpse into their thought processes.

For an extended period of time, one question hangs in the air: What does Armando get out of this? His emotions are suppressed to the point of being completely pulverised, so we won’t get an answer from him, but will this relationship manage to reinvigorate him? By the time the end credits roll, it would appear that Armando only used Élder to expel some of his own demons, but the fragmentary presentation of the film’s narrative helps very little in making sense of the events and the characters.

In his acting début, the young Luis Silva is a revelation. Although his character has a devil-may-care attitude at the outset, presumably a defence mechanism against a life that was not always easy, Silva’s deep dark eyes imbue him with a darkness that is ambiguous and keeps up wondering who will ultimately have the upper hand. By the time he cleans up and dons a proper shirt for a birthday party, it is impossible not to notice the seductive young man with the peachy lips who had been hiding in full view the whole time.

From Afar draws out its mysteries, relishing in our futile attempts to make sense of the slowly unspooling relationship, perhaps in the same way that the two characters are, although we cannot know for sure because the one (in part) and the other (in full) are so reluctant to stand naked before us, as it were. With such a short running time, it would be wrong to ask for much more colour, but a handful of scenes seem to be fragments left behind when earlier, fuller scenes were pared down for the sake of artistic obfuscation. But the silences – and Armando’s silent stare, especially – will continue to haunt the viewer long after the final credits.

Viewed at the Be2Can 2016 Film Festival.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

While 12 Years a Slave has its share of problems moving from the page to the screen, it is a haunting film that raises the bar for all other depictions of the 19th-century South.

12-years-a-slaveUSA/UK
3.5*

Director:
Steve McQueen
Screenwriter:
John Ridley
Director of Photography:
Sean Bobbitt

Running time: 135 minutes

The most famous shot in Gaspar Noë’s agonising Irréversible shows a woman in an underground passage in Paris being raped while the camera remains nearly static in front of her, and we helplessly watch her face as she endures relentless brutality. There is a similar shot near the beginning of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, in which we see the formerly freeman Solomon Northup strapped in chains to the floor of a small cell, kneeling towards a barred opening in the wall and being beaten again and again – so hard, in fact, that the implements break upon his back – by a slave owner who bought him from money-hungry kidnappers.

While not without its minor faults, the film is a powerful portrayal of one man’s journey into slavery and is a much-needed improvement over other films in recent years that dealt with the unequal rights of African Americans in U.S. history, such as The Butler.

This adaptation of the real-life Northup’s autobiographical tale relates in great detail how he was a freeman but was likely drugged and sold into slavery, shipped to plantations in Louisiana and had to spend 12 gruelling years (most of them under the whip of a vicious plantation owner named Epps) as someone’s property in conditions that are equally inhuman.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Northup, who has to take the name “Platt” during a slave auction and is stuck with the name for the rest of his time as a slave. Ejiofor’s portrayal of his character, very evidently guided by McQueen’s firm hand, is subtle but consistent, and the film’s ending is a magnificent display of the emotional power that is unleashed when anticipation meets catharsis – with Northup at the centre.

This being a McQueen film, the visuals are breathtaking and slightly unconventional. He is fond of shots that last longer than they would in most other films, and while the beating of Northup, described above, is the most evident example, another impressive shot is the static shot showing the aftermath of an attempted lynching. The horror of the scene is stunningly underscored by the daily activities on the farm continuing to take place as if the victim – straining his neck to free him from the noose – wasn’t even present and struggling for his life. Some viewers may be put off by the use of a few of these lingering shots, as they very often serve to pause rather than emphasise, with the striking exception of this excruciating post-lynching portrait.

The film opens halfway through the story, with Northup trying to fashion a writing implement to no avail and rebuffing the nocturnal advances of a girl who sleeps next to him in the tiny wooden slave cabin.

We then flash back to his life as a free citizen of the northern states, where he lives with his wife and two young children and makes his living as an accomplished violinist. He is called upon by two mysterious gentlemen who promise him great financial reward, and together they travel southward, where he is taken captive in the dark of night, having knocked back too many glasses of alcohol in celebration of his big journey to Washington, D.C. He wakes up in a slave pen, chained, naked and alone, and he has to deny his own status as a freeman.

In Northup’s memoir, he soon impresses with his skills as a violinist, but the film changes this detail in order to establish a bond between Northup and his first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who seems like a man he can trust to set him free. However, Ford’s unwillingness or powerlessness is revealed in two wonderful interactions (between Northup and Ford; and Northup and fellow slave Eliza), neither of which features in the novel, that make clear Ford’s wilful blindness even while we still share Northup’s view of him as a man whom we can call noble in many other respects.

12 Years a Slave is a very faithful cinematic adaptation of the eponymous novel, although it has its share of modifications, two of which stand out: The first concerns the scene in which Northup is chased through the swamp and has to hide from the bloodhounds. It has been omitted from the film, which is a shame, as it was without a doubt the most riveting scene of the entire book.

The second regards the story’s point of view. As the novel was written in the first person, Northup always made it clear which events he experienced with his own body and which ones he learned about from someone else. We had complete faith in Northup when he told the story from his perspective, and we believed the other stories because he believed them. Northup is in almost every single scene of McQueen’s film, but the inclusion of a scene in which he is not present at all – the late-night rape of the young Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o) by the plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender) – make no sense beyond upping our indignation, which by that stage has already reached fever pitch. The terror, violence and disrespect inflicted on Northup are enough to get our empathy: We didn’t need McQueen deploying other characters to mine our souls for pity.

But while the focus could have been tighter and the scenes stitched together more smoothly (indications of the passage of time also would have been helpful, although perhaps this frustration with chronological orientation is exactly what the director intended), the direction is firm, and the effect on the audience is at times devastating. The storyline involving Patsy – particularly those scenes in which Northup is also present, and we can see his reaction to the injustice committed against this young woman whom Epps’s wife despises because of her beauty – is heartrending and produces a very successful depiction of what the book merely mentions in passing.

12 Years a Slave is McQueen’s third film as a director (following Hunger and Shame) and is his best attempt yet to fuse his artistic sensibility with more commercial narrative demands.

Anthropoid (2016)

True-to-life account of the two heroes behind a stunning assassination in the heart of Nazi-occupied Bohemia is brilliantly staged but marred by peculiar editing decisions and mishmash of accents.

anthropoidUK/Czech Republic
3.5*

Director:
Sean Ellis

Screenwriters:
Sean Ellis

Anthony Frewin
Director of Photography:
Sean Ellis

Running time: 120 minutes

There are few people as unequivocally heroic yet as little known outside their home country as Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík. Czechoslovak soldiers born during the First World War, they would grow to see their proud nation in the heart of Europe betrayed by the Allied forces and handed over to Nazi Germany by the time they reached their mid-20s. Their supreme act of bravery – assassinating Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s cold-blooded emissary to the occupied territory of Bohemia and Moravia – ultimately did little to change the tide against the Nazis, but the stand they took against the Third Reich is one of the most admirable acts of the 20th century.

UK director Sean Ellis spent many years developing the screenplay for Anthropoid (the title refers to the codename of the two soldiers’ top-secret mission), and the film’s plot closely resembles the events as they occurred at the end of 1941 and the first half of 1942. However, accuracy and entertainment are by no means the same thing, and it is with this latter point that the director fails to make an adequate impression.

Anthropoid opens late on a cold December night when the two men, who had received their orders from the Czech government-in-exile in the United Kingdom, are dropped 30 kilometres from Prague. Anthropoid screenplay is boldly structured to eschew flashbacks and to limit itself to the Czech territory for exactly as long as the two men’s lifespan.

Very little happens over the course of the first hour, however. Although there is a sense of foreboding regarding the execution of the plan, Ellis does a poor job of showing us life under occupation. Czechs appear to go about their business, even as Germans in uniform show up at their cafés and bars, but there is no real feeling for the Czechs and their (presumably) terrified frame of mind. Uncle Hajský (Toby Jones, whose presence in the film is very steadying) expresses anger about the 1938 Munch Agreement, but that is as much as we get. The film also makes very little effort to show us the camaraderie between the two men who spend six months in very close proximity, most of the time hiding the real purpose of their presence in the Prague to everyone around them.

Unfortunately, because of the actors involved and a number of peculiar decisions made during the editing process, the final product is wildly uneven.

The actors are Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy as the Czech Kubiš and the Slovak Gabčík, respectively, and it was certainly a clever bit of casting, with Dornan being a native of Northern Ireland while Murphy hails from the Republic of Ireland. This cleverness, however, cannot make up for Dornan’s unshakable Irish lilt that hits us every time he opens his mouth, which has the effect of leaving the viewer wholly alienated from the story’s time and place.

Among the rest of the cast, the inconsistency in pronunciation is another nuisance. From a financial point of view, it is understandable that the film was made in English. But while the accents are already imperfect, the issue is compounded by the fact that some Czech cast members choose to pronounce uniquely Czech letters (such as the notoriously difficult-to-pronounce “ř”) in their native tongue, while other players stick to the closest English equivalent.

The editing process is equally flawed, and perhaps the most egregious examples are the otherwise stunning set pieces that serve as pivotal moments in the narrative: the assassination of Heydrich, which takes place in public in broad daylight, and a six-hour shootout inside the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral.

Both of these events, while meticulously staged and deserving of admiration because of how they unfold, have their sound turned off at the most crucial moments. At times, they are only accompanied by the soft sounds of an extradiegetic piano, which imbues them with a cloak of artistry when they require a more gritty sense of immediacy.

The film’s opening minutes are similarly inelegant. After a few introductory bits of text that are misleading at best and historically inaccurate at worst (Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in October 1938 and its full-scale invasion of Czechoslovakia less than six months later are seemingly lumped together), we get a handful of shots in close, slapdash succession that communicate precious little but point to a director more interested in telling his story through the editing suite than with the camera.

Visually, there is nothing particularly memorable about Anthropoid, at least not in a good way, as the film is tinged in a golden hue that is completely unnecessary, and Prague is always covered in a thick layer of fog, with only a church spire, a few rooftops and Prague Castle visible, most likely in order to save money.

And yet, despite all these problems, Ellis does draw on some genuinely moving material in subtle and very effective ways. Perhaps the most powerful moment in the entire film comes very early on when the two parachutists are questioned by the Prague Resistance: Kubiš’s response to a question about his hometown in Moravia shimmers with nostalgia and patriotism conveyed through words alone that conjure up a single image. In that moment, we understand Kubiš’s firm connection to his country and why he has come back to defend it against the ongoing Nazi aggression. Quite simply, it is extraordinary.

Dornan’s accent does not do him any favours, and in general he appears to be absent from the narrative, except for the numerous close-ups on his shivering hands (to make the point, in no uncertain terms, that he is also just a man and does not have nerves of steel). By contrast, Murphy excels as Gabčík, and so does Anna Geislerová, who plays his romantic interest, Lenka, a young woman who has already seen more than her share of violence and experienced more pain during the war than we could imagine.

It would have required a real genius to turn this story of bravery and success-despite-all-odds into anything but riveting, not unlike the entertaining hatchet job that Wolfgang Petersen did with Troy. The lead-up to the action-packed final act is rather dull and dreary, although Ellis has to be commended for minimising the visibility of swastikas – usually a hallmark of these kinds of films, but it is particularly disheartening that the two major set pieces fall short of perfection because of the sound choices. In addition, the climax contains a laughable hallucination that has no place in the film.

This is a story that everyone should be aware of, and this is the most poignant portrayal of the story to date, but the film itself would have benefited from a greater focus on realistic sound, particularly with regard to the accents of the cast.

A Useful Life (2010)

A Useful Life starts off as a nostalgic throwback to life at the cinema before the real world intervenes to drag the main character out of the theatre and into the streets, where he gets to experience a very movie-like romance.

Useful LifeUruguay
3.5*

Director:
Federico Veiroj

Screenwriters:
Arauco Hernández

Inés Bortagaray
Gonzalo Delgado
Federico Veiroj
Director of Photography:
Arauco Hernández

Original title: La vida útil

Running time: 65 minutes

An opening title card warns us that what we are about to see is not reflective of the real Cinemateca Uruguaya, the South American country’s 50-something-year-old institution sticking up for the seventh art. Perhaps the title card is necessary for local audiences, as the film features not only the premises of the real movie house in the heart of the capital, Montevideo, but also the real-life director, Manuel Martínez Carril, in the same capacity as a fictional character.

Straight after the title card, the film’s entire credits follow, just as they used to in the old days – generally speaking, until the mid-1970s. While we are immediately positioned in the present with the opening image (a FedEx package), the feeling of nostalgia remains, particularly because we see so little from the modern world inside the Cinemateca. It is an environment that is almost hermetically sealed to the passage of time until financial calamity threatens to topple the house of cards in one fell swoop.

The main character is the heavy-set, cream-coloured-suit-wearing, expressionless-’til-the-end Jorge, played by Jorge Jellinek. (As an aside, it is worth noting that everyone is this film is named after the actor or actress that plays them.) He is the manager of the cinema and has been with the institution for half its existence. In fact, he has devoted so much of his life to spreading the gospel of celluloid that he does not have a life beyond the building’s walls and is living with his elderly father.

But the Cinemateca, despite its celebration of the world of fiction, has to face the cold, hard reality of the present: It owes eight months in rent, has a steadily declining viewership and needs to repair its projectors, which would cost a stunning amount of money. And the foundation that has supported them does not have money to waste on what by all accounts appears to be an enterprise that will never recover.

The night of the last picture show comes much more quickly than anyone had anticipated, in spite of Jorge’s tape-recorded plea to the audience before one of its last screenings that, “You need the Cinemateca, and the Cinemateca needs you”. The halls of the cinema are decorated with reminders of the history of the art form – an artistic rendering of Eadweard Muybridge’s galloping horses. The film also contains an encomium to films from years past, such as Alexander Nevsky, in an absolutely mesmerising five-minute-long shot at the halfway mark that is static and unbroken and features Martinez explaining the difference between knowing (facts about) cinema and feeling it.

Luckily for Jorge, the end of this chapter in his life is followed by an adventure of cinematic proportions. In fact, at this point, two-thirds into the film, there should have been a switch to brightly lit Technicolor, because the contrast in tone with what came before is so sharp. But while the artifice is more pronounced, director Federico Veiroj pulls us closer on two occasions by having us see the world from Jorge’s point of view: once, comically, when he takes off his glasses, and another time, more tongue-in-cheek, when he is having his hair washed at the salon.

The Useful Life is not entirely successful at melding the two parts nor at justifying the sudden shift from the one to the other, but the film’s short running time (barely surpassing the one-hour mark) certainly works in its favour. This is a film for cinephiles who can appreciate the poster of Akira Kurosawa’s most expensive film, Ran, in the background when Jorge realises the cinema’s finances are in dire straits, who get shivers down their spines seeing the director serve as Spanish voice-over artist for a screening of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, or anyone else who has been to and experienced the joy of seeing a many-decades-old film on the big screen.

It doesn’t have the passion or the wit of a Cinema Paradiso (after all, these are drastic times for theatres all over the world that are showing non-contemporary or non-commercial films), but its focus on a tiny group of characters keeps our attention and show that movies are always a critical part of a life worth living.