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 the scene of their crime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 shows that movies are always a critical part of a life worth living.

Broken Blossoms (1919)

The beginnings of yellowface in the cinema are far less controversial than D.W. Griffith’s earlier Birth of a Nation, but Broken Blossoms lacks complexity and relies on main characters’ outsider status alone as the reason for them to be together. 

Broken BlossomsUSA
3.5*

Director:
D.W. Griffith

Screenwriters:
Thomas Burke

D.W. Griffith
Director of Photography:
G.W. Bitzer

Alternate title: The Yellow Man and the Girl

Running time: 90 minutes

D.W. Griffith’s depressing 1919 romantic drama Broken Blossoms may have the dubious title of being a pioneer in the use of yellowface (having white actors play Asians, most notably by grotesquely deforming their facial features), but it also arguably started the trend of creating a couple from two people who have very little in common and no obvious chemistry.

In the early 20th century, the placid Cheng Huan is moved by the “gentle message of Buddha” towards the West. An encounter with a rowdy crew of American sailors who use to their fists to solve problems horrifies the timid Cheng and reinforces his belief that the West needs the East’s positive and peaceful approach. He sets sail for London, where we find he has become an outcast who barely speaks to anybody but runs a tiny shop in the capital’s squalid Limehouse district, where, according to the film’s title cards, “the Orient squats at the portals of the West”.

Griffith, as he had done since at least The Drive for a Life in 1909, continues to deploy parallel editing on many occasions, although it this case one would be hard-pressed to say he is perfecting the approach. He focuses on the stories of the two main characters, Cheng and Lucy, whose lives are comparable to each other in their sorrow, and Griffith expects we would expect the two strands to be firmer tied together than apart.

Of course, that is a mistake too many directors still make today. The simplistic notion that people would not only gravitate towards each other but become intimately connected simply because they are outsiders is extremely silly. Cheng barely speaks to anyone. Lucy is equally timid, although she is also suffering tremendous domestic violence at the hands of the man who raised her, a perpetually drunk miscreant boxer, Battling Burrows, who takes out his general frustration with life on his adopted daughter. So, naturally, Cheng and Lucy find each other and immediately merge their souls.

Lilian Gish plays Lucy, and unlike the expressionless, dour face (naturally, framed under a conical hat) that the white Richard Barthelmess wears to portray Cheng, hers vibrates with a melancholy that is ever-present. A scene late in the film in which she locks herself in a closet out of fear for her own life and then writhes along the wall in anguish has justifiably been hailed for its visceral impact on the viewer.

A running visual theme that Gish utilises exceptionally well is the small gesture of using her fingers to push the corners of her mouth upwards, thus forcing a smile onto her “tear-aged” face. These are moments that could easily have come across as contrived but are instead conveyed with a real sense of desperation thanks to the actress’s skills as a performer.

This is supposed to be a romantic film, as the title cards inform us almost immediately after Cheng and Lucy set eyes on each other: Cheng’s loving care of the physically and mentally abused Lucy is “the first gentleness she has ever known”, and she “seems transformed – into the dark chambers of her incredulous, frightened little heart comes warmth and light.” Cheng is so taken with this creature of purity that he scoops up the moonlight falling through the window and places it worshipfully on her hair. And yet, the two of them almost never speak; as the film, despite its obvious intention to produce a romance, chooses to focus on scenes of action (sometimes irrelevant to the main couple) with Burrows the boxer.

Cheng, who hovers lasciviously over Lucy while she sleeps, makes for a rather pathetic hero, and we have little reason to empathise with him, except for him being such a tender fellow who is taken advantage of by a brutish boxer, and more generally, by Western civilisation. On this point, Griffith, who had made the racially insensitive Birth of a Nation four years earlier, is surprisingly broad-minded. In one scene, the obviously mild-mannered Cheng meets a missionary, about to set off for China to “convert the heathen”, who hands him a pamphlet on Hell, presumably because he assumes the Chinaman would require salvation from the Christian Trinity.

Fortunately, despite its one-dimensional characters and the utter simplicity of its central romance, Broken Blossoms does have at least two moments that stand out from the rest. One is a shot at the beginning of the extended climax, when Burrows discovers Lucy in Cheng’s apartment. The camera shoots his face looking straight at us, and we can just about see his nostrils flaring as the rage builds to a terrifying crescendo. Although there was never any risk that the viewer would be empathising with the villain, this momentary re-positioning of the viewer is clever and comparable to (though better executed than) the final shot of The Great Train Robbery.

The other moment worth considering is the complex morality at the end of the film. Here, the story seems to come full circle, as Cheng’s ineffective approach to the pugilist sailors at the beginning of the film comes back to haunt him, and either he has been consumed by the barbarity of the Anglo-Saxons he had believed he would be able to save, or he has decided to solve his problems in a different, albeit equally futile, way.

Although Broken Blossoms will be remembered for its mainstream normalisation of the practice of yellowface (even though the film opened pre–Hays Code, which prohibited the depiction of miscegenation), in terms of morality the film is a vast improvement over Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Daydreams and a little push finally get one man out of his comfort zone, taking him on a wild and ever more fantastical journey from the Big Apple to Iceland to the foothills of the Himalayas in north-eastern Afghanistan.

The Secret Life of Walter MittyUSA
3.5*

Director:
Ben Stiller

Screenwriter:
Steve Conrad

Director of Photography:
Stuart Dryburgh

Running time: 115 minutes

There is always fun to be had whenever Ben Stiller steps behind the camera. From Zoolander to Tropic Thunder, his characters have been memorable in a way very few others have managed: They are oddballs, but even though they don’t arouse much sympathy, they stick with us.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is slightly different, because it is less inclined towards entertaining us and more towards thrilling us with the notion that it’s never too late to be adventurous, and that there is a Magellan inside all of us. The level of storytelling isn’t elevated far above Stiller’s previous pictures, but despite its flaws, it is certainly more mature.

The film is the second attempt at bringing James Thurber’s original 2,000-word story from 1939 to the big screen. The short story had little going for it: Basically, Walter Mitty drove his wife to the hairdresser, picked up “overshoes” because she had told him to, bought dog biscuits and then picked her up again, all while daydreaming about adventures in alternating paragraphs.

The first director to try his hand at the story was Norman McLeod, but the film he produced, released in 1947, is filled with an embarrassingly weak central character who faces farcical situations at home, while his many alter egos takes on life and death in his fantasies.

Stiller’s film is certainly an improvement on that, because the daydreams that pepper the opening act – and they do unfortunately become tedious to the extent that we no longer care what happens, since we know it is merely a temporary digression from reality – eventually morph into adventure in Walter Mitty’s (Stiller) own life, when he jumps from a helicopter into shark-infested waters off the coast of Greenland, skates down a long and winding road in the Icelandic countryside while a volcano erupts close by, and climbs a mountain in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush where he spots the elusive snow leopard.

But let’s back up for a second – there are a few interlocking parts to this plot.

The reason Mitty embarks on the journey of a lifetime is because he is after the missing negative of a photo that is supposed to be the final cover of LIFE Magazine, where he works as the negative asset manager. The company’s product is about to be turned into a digital-only publication, and personnel cuts are imminent, but he has his eye on co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), who has only just started working there.

With only three other photos as clues – one of someone’s finger, the other of a body of water with the word “Erkigsnek”, and the last of what looks like a piece of wood – he sets off on a mission to find the magazine’s nomadic photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), who was last seen somewhere close to the capital of Greenland.

It is not always clear how Mitty manages to follow O’Connell’s trail, but he is constantly on the move, being pushed ever onward by visions of Cheryl telling him to go while channelling David Bowie. And we certainly feel privileged to experience this rush of adrenaline along with him. Although it is obvious from the first moment we see Greenland that the scenes here were actually shot on Iceland, the scenes on the Northern Hemisphere’s largest island do provide a magical moment when Mitty, once again lost in thought, realises the opportunity to escape from a life of absolute safety and monotony is upon him, and he catches the flight to a destination unknown.

The scenes on these two islands are stunning and filled with unusual characters (a drunk helicopter pilot played by the powerhouse Icelandic actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson is a particular thrill) and extraordinary situations, including the eruption of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull.

Unfortunately, the scenery and the events make us question the necessity of the action set in New York City, either at the office or out and about with Cheryl, who is clearly fond of Mitty, but having recently separated from her husband, she seems to be hesitant to jump right back into the waters of the dating world.

But perhaps that was the point all along: The real world sucks, and that is why Mitty chooses to daydream. New York City is also the scene of family drama, and thanks to his chirpy mother (Shirley MacLaine) we learn the obstacle to him embracing his wild side was the death of his father, which left the family without money and forced him to start work when he was a teenager. This back story easily explains why Steven Spielberg had toyed with the idea of directing the film back in 2003.

Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has a Spike Jonze quality to it, especially as imagination and reality often flow into each other, and the imagery of water or ripples found throughout is very fitting, beautifully captured by director of photography Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano).

There are odd digressions, including a wholly unbefitting homage to (or spoof of, depending on your perspective) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and it is a bit of a surprise to find Mitty leaving on a flight into so-called “Ungoverned Afghanistan” at the drop of a hat without so much as applying for a visa. Even the final revelation just before the closing credits, which is absolutely picture-perfect, lacks a greater punch because it doesn’t have much of a foundation to support it, and despite the film’s best efforts at touching us, it feels like a missed opportunity.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty takes us on a wonderful ride through exquisite locations, but while the screenplay breathes life into the short story, it only hints at a well of emotions that are never explored and, sadly for us, remain a secret part of the life of Walter Mitty.

Fury (2014)

David Ayer’s Second World War film has a dose of the infernal as it shows what has usually gone unsaid: good guys also have to kill.

fury-david-ayerUSA
3.5*

Director:
David Ayer

Screenwriter:
David Ayer

Director of Photography:
Roman Vasyanov

Running time: 135 minutes

When the Allied forces disembarked on the shores of Normandy, Dante’s famous sign at the gates of hell should have informed them what they were up against: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Of course, in the end, they prevailed against Hitler, Mussolini and their troops, and the heroism of the soldiers and their actions during the Second World War still make grown men cry. But as much as war is about conquest and defeat, the fights that have to be fought lead to death, and it is not only when you have killed hundreds or even dozens of people that you change, but when you have killed a single one.

Every time there is a war, this realisation has to dawn on soldiers, and the moment when war becomes real is when you aim your pistol and pull the trigger at someone whose ideology differs from yours but who has not tried to kill you. In David Ayer’s Fury, war is a painfully miserable experience for the viewer, because it so clearly turns people into bloodthirsty animals, often against their will. It tells the story of five men, huddled inside a tank named “Fury”, who do their best to survive, despite the odds, as they proceed across the German countryside and make their way towards Berlin in the waning days of the war.

Despite the green fields, sometimes decked with light snow, we get the impression throughout that the U.S. troops are crossing the valley of the shadow of death, and there is indeed evil to fear, because anything from a landmine to a brush-covered sniper can flip someone’s life switch in a matter of seconds. In the dark but meaningful opening scene, we get a very good sense of just how fragile life can be.

The film’s opening scene goes from ominous to gory to utterly bleak as someone we can’t see approaches on horseback, only to be stabbed through the eye, the blade presumably sinking deep into the skull, and dying instantly. The guy who did the stabbing is played by Brad Pitt, and he is in charge of a band of brothers during the Second World War who want to kill as many Nazis as they can as fast as they can so that they can go home and forget about all the people they killed. It is a vicious circle from which they can’t escape.

That opener, in which we are utterly unsure at first whether to cheer for the stabber or feel bad for the stabbee, shows this violence between individuals we don’t know, and who in all likelihood don’t know each other. It is a kind of violence of which this film is powerful but ultimately a pale representation of the large-scale moral carnage that occurs during wartime.

The main meat of the story does not involve the five soldiers as much as it focuses on the very quick growing up the newest addition to the group, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), has to do not. Not only does he have to stand his man and fit in but also survive in this environment of threats that are as constant as they are imminent.

Besides Pitt’s Sergeant Collier, the others in the group are as varied as one can expect: There is the silent, serious and very subdued Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), who cites Scripture when need be, and these guys need it very often; the hedonist Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) who has clearly been fighting too long; and the Spanish-speaking Trini “Gordo” García (Michael Peña).

Ellison goes through the predictable trajectory from refusing to shoot anyone (before his transfer to the battlefield, he used to be a clerk, and he prides himself on typing 60 words per minute) to shooting like his life depended on it, and often it does, earning him the nom de guerre “[killing] Machine”.

But it is not all moonlight and roses, and Ayer takes pains to point out the moral minefield these characters have to navigate as they commit atrocious acts so that good may triumph in the end. At one point, we realise even Sergeant Collier might not be above taking an innocent German girl by force if given half a chance.

Because of his age, his lack of experience and his much less violent worldview, Ellison does not seem to fit in with these men, and neither does the audience, but over time we get to see the humanity in each of the characters, albeit often buried beneath a layer of denial for the sake of survival.

The film itself is an odd creature: While the characters get a somber dose of humanity and texture, the story is aimless, and there is no clear goal. We know the war is winding down, but by the end of the film, we are still stuck somewhere in the German countryside with only tiny triumphs and defeats having been racked up along the way, including an unforgettable scene that involves the Nazis’ feared Tiger tank.

The acting is superb, and it is particularly inspiring to see the greatness that lies within LaBeouf when he represses his emotions. But despite its historical accuracy, the “tracers” that light up one battle scene are more reminiscent of a Star Wars battle, complete with what looks like green and red lasers on the battlefield, than a 1945 shoot-out in the real world. Ayer should have found another way to make this scene palatable to an audience not at all used to such visuals in a realistic setting.

While the story may be thin, we leave the cinema utterly drained because of an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion and a realisation that even the good guys do terrible things so that their side can win. Soldiers are human, and in situations as primal as warfare, they are reduced to their most basic instincts, and for all the honour and glory we bestow on them when they return home, many of us probably would not want to know what they did so that the rest of us may carry on.