Begin the Beguine (1982)

A slow-moving but heartwarming tale of a Nobel Prize–winning author’s return to the country of his youth is little more than a music video for Pachelbel’s “Canon”.

Begin the BeguineSpain
3*

Director:
José Luis Garci
Screenwriters:
José Luis Garci

Angel Llorente
Director of Photography:
Manuel Rojas

Running time: 85 minutes

Original title: Volver a empezar

The first few minutes of José Luis Garci’s Begin the Beguine tell us everything we need to know without using so much as a single word. A train arrives in the Asturian city of Gijón on Spain’s northern coast. An elderly gentleman gets off the train, but before checking into his hotel, he visits a downtown movie house called the Robledo, walks along the harbour where tiny fishing boats bob on the water, and then, at a football stadium, the sight of a chalk line beneath his shoe makes him visibly nostalgic, as do the cranes in the distance, symbols of development and the passage of time. We don’t know anything about this man, but we know this is the home of his youth, where he played football and went to the cinema, and we know this film will be about him catching up with the past.

Unfortunately, the catching up is as shallow as Johann Pachelbel’s recurring “Canon” (as well as Cole Porter’s titular ditty) on the soundtrack is repetitive. But the man at the centre, who wears a smile that tells us he doesn’t take anything too seriously, because wisdom or experience or merely the years he has spent on this Earth have taught him better, keeps our attention and connects with our hearts even when our heads tell us this is too simple a tale.

The man is Antonio Miguel Albajara, a native of Gijón who left because of Franco before moving to the United States and eventually ended up settling in San Francisco and teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. We later learn that he has just received the Nobel Prize for Literature and has made this detour on his way back home from the ceremony in Stockholm. Ostensibly, the reason for the detour is not so much to see the city of his youth as it is to see the girl of his youth, Elena. What happens between them, however, is nothing more than scene after scene of reminiscing, and the emotional connection remains superficial at best. Perhaps all the more so because of a secret that is withheld.

This secret is the real reason for Albajara’s return to Gijón, and it has to do with him knowing this will be the last chance for him to see the city and the streets he wrote about in his novels, and above all to relive the romance of his youth with Elena. To protect Elena from devastating news, he keeps the secret of his imminent release from the bonds of existence to himself and chooses instead to make the reunion one of blissful ignorance, as much for Elena’s as for his own sake. This decision, understandable though it may be, is not probed in any detail and ultimately remains firmly in the background. This would have been perfectly acceptable if the foreground had been interesting on its own merits, but that is not the case.

In the foreground, our attention is often directed to Losado, the buffoonish yet well-meaning manager of the hotel where Albajara is staying. It feels like every scene with him belongs in a different film, because the overacting is at times unbearable and does damage to the sincerity and the authenticity we would like to ascribe to Albajara’s interactions.

We learn that Albajara forsook not only his girlfriend but also a promising career as one of the best midfielders the town had ever seen, not to forget his best friend, “Redhead” (Roxu), with whom he shares a beautiful, tender scene in the middle of the film. Unfortunately, none of these events is treated with the seriousness or gets the elaboration they deserve.

The camera also has some peculiar, often downright amateurish moments to indicate loss: At two points in the film, the camera dollies either up or down to reveal Albajara sitting among a vast array of empty chairs – presumably to indicate that he is alone, or that the people around him have died or that the life he once had is no more.

And yet, despite its many faults, including a failure to ask how Albajara’s memory of Elena stacks up against his experience in the present, Begin the Beguine is full of warmth and thoroughly likeable. The primary reason for this is the quiet, subdued performance of Antonio Ferrandis in the lead, playing the character as a wise old man who has made peace with the world and is now also making peace with the past before he faces an uncertain future. Another reason is a wonderful scene in which the writer speaks to King Juan Carlos I on the phone.

But Pachelbel permeates the soundtrack as much as “Lara’s Theme” overpowered Dr. Zhivago, and ultimately we cannot help but think of the film as visual accompaniment to the music, instead of the other way around. During a final encounter at the airport, “Greensleeves” pops up in the background, and even though the connection is self-evident to the point of being simplistic, it is a joy to hear something else on the audio track for a change.

Begin the Beguine is a very shallow depiction of a key moment in the last year of a man’s life, but the central premise and performance are strong enough to carry it through its relatively short running time, and the film has to be commended for refusing to use flashbacks.

Unbroken (2014)

Story of Louis Zamperini gets sumptuous treatment in dramatically uneven retelling of his World War II ordeal.

unbrokenUSA
3*

Director:
Angelina Jolie

Screenwriters:
Joel Coen

Ethan Coen
Richard LaGravenese
William Nicholson
Director of Photography:
Roger Deakins

Running time: 135 minutes

Life is what happens while some are just trying to survive. In Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s epic, ambitious but also commendably restrained retelling of the life of Louis Zamparini, the canvas is vast and so, too, is the range of pain inflicted on a young man during wartime. Jolie proves to be enormously talented as a storyteller, but unfortunately the film is preoccupied with showing us that everybody has their reasons. In so doing, and by watering down the violence and bloodshed, it also commits the indefensible sin of downplaying the horrors of war.

Zamparini’s life was filled with good fortune but also a great deal of physical suffering at the hands of his captors, and the desire to survive obviously makes him a heroic character that deserves the big-screen treatment. The film plays it safe throughout, making sure to achieve nothing higher than a PG-13 rating by having children-friendly dialogue and restraining its depiction of violence; however, in its final moments it goes for broke by clearly drawing a visual parallel to Jesus Christ on the cross, and the absurdity of this comparison leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

British actor Jack O’Connell does a fine job in the lead, his clean-cut face serving him well as both the romantic representation of the wholesome American and ultimately as the object of sadistic affection of one of his detention camp guards in Japan, the feared Matsushiro Watanabe, better known as “The Bird” (Takamasa Ishihara).

The first half of Unbroken opens above the Pacific Ocean, aboard a B-52 bomber during the Second World War, where Zamperini is in charge of dropping the bombs at exactly the right moments. There are some hairy situations with the boys in the aircrew nearly losing their lives, and at the most dramatic point in the scene, the film cuts back to Zamperini’s early childhood in Torrance, California, with his Italian immigrant family. He was headed towards teenage delinquency when his older brother noticed how fast he can run, and suddenly, in a jump cut that comes as no surprise, we see him running as a teenager who has turned into an athlete of some renown.

After a few more scenes during the Second World War, we get yet another flashback to Zamperini’s early years, during which he sets off to compete in the Olympics in Berlin, Nazi Germany. This section of the film is magnificent, not only because of the overwhelming success of director of photography Roger Deakins in recreating the feeling of being inside the enormous arena, but also because of the subtle but powerful moment that is so brief the viewer might miss it on the first viewing: When all the athletes gather inside the stadium and the cauldron is lit, Zamperini looks behind him and sees a Japanese athlete looking back at him. They smile at each other in sportsmanlike camaraderie, both elated to participate at the highest level of their game. But as we watch them, the dramatic irony is evident as the bloody United States–Japan war scenes from earlier in the film still ring in our heads.

Once we return to the battlefield, we stay there, and it is a never-ending parade of misery for the poor Zamperini, who spends weeks on the open sea before being taken captive and held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese until after the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The quick pace of the first half slows down significantly in the second, as the screenplay focuses intently on Zamperini’s ordeal in the detention camps and the unjust treatment he receives at the hands of the androgynous Watanabe, whose ambiguous behavior towards the Olympic athlete make him a menace from whom we can only expect the worst. Viewers familiar with Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence will notice familiar traits in the Japanese sergeant, but unfortunately Ishihara doesn’t bring much to his performance except sexualised menace.

In the film’s final moments, however, Jolie reveals the story behind Watanabe, and while this explanation in no way excuses his actions, the glimpse into his own story does offer us a way of recognising the humanity in some of the most malicious people we have ever come across. But perhaps it is a good thing Jolie decided not to show Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Olympics.

“A lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain”, Louis’s older brother tells him in one of the film’s many trailer-ready snippets of dialogue. “If you can take it, you can make it” is another oft-repeated saying. The inspirational power of these two expressions is lost because the moment we hear them, very early in the film, we know they will be important later on.

Given Deakins is the film’s director of photography (the visual stalwart of the films of the Coen Brothers, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay), it should come as no surprise that the images are gorgeous, as all the yellows and browns are tinged with gold, and the blues of the sky and the ocean hew between azure and a clear green-blue, respectively.

As Russell “Phil” Phillips, one of Zamperini’s crewmen aboard the bombardier, who endures much of the same hardship throughout the film, Domhnall Gleeson delivers a poignant, highly memorable performance. By contrast, Zamperini’s parents are caricatures of Italian-Americans, and his mother in particular, who never learns a word of English, is maddeningly simplistic.

With Unbroken, her second feature film as director, Jolie plays it too safe. Despite the publicity around the film that stresses the personal importance of the project to her, we feel little passion, and only a handful of scenes have the visceral quality we expect from a war film. The notable exceptions come during the characters’ near-death experiences, when the tension is handled admirably without sentimentality or exaggeration.

On the whole, however, the film is rather disappointing, with dialogue that is often stilted and situations that, while perhaps historically accurate, have little credibility when they are stacked together like here. It remains to be seen what becomes of Jolie as a director; as a storyteller, she is very capable, but as a filmmaker, she still has some way to go.

Heil (2015)

Nazi satire is heavy on the jokes but makes no serious effort to convey coherent message except to mock those seeking power.

heil-bruggemannGermany
3*

Director:
Dietrich Brüggemann

Screenwriter:
Dietrich Brüggemann

Director of Photography:
Alexander Sass

Running time: 100 minutes

Hitler seems to be all the rage recently, and not just because of the recent celebrations marking 70 years since the end of World War II. What makes the former Führer’s comical resurgence all the more interesting is that it originates in Germany, a country that has been ashamed of its Nazi past to the point that Mein Kampf is banned (copyright is held by the government until it expires in 2016), and any display of the Nazi salute is prohibited.

In the opening credits sequence of his latest film, Heil, the playful German director Dietrich Brüggemann intercuts the Nazi salute with Angela Merkel raising her hand to take the oath of office. Despite the provocative title, Hitler himself does not appear in the film, but the scourge of neo-Nazism is addressed in a very light-hearted way that basically makes caricatures out of any individuals with far-right tendencies.

The literary hit from a few years ago, Look Who’s Back, took a similar tack by having Adolf Hitler wake up from a coma in the present and work his way back into the public consciousness. One of the highlights of the book is a meeting between the principled, highly disciplined former leader of the Reich and a far-right party official who pretends to be in favour of Hitler’s policies but is only a few marbles away from being illiterate.

While it is debatable whether comedic simplification is the best approach to tackle this admittedly toxic subject, the issue has been topical for some time, and with the current emphasis across Europe on immigration, at least with regard to non-European or non-Western citizens, national identity is worth considerable discussion.

However, that is all far from the mind of Brüggemann, who plays up the sensationalism of Nazism in the opening minutes before he settles into a slapstick narrative that is always fun and has a booming soundtrack that pretends to propel the action forward even when little of note is happening.

The plot revolves around Sebastian Klein (Jerry Hoffmann), a handsome young Afro-German intellectual who regularly makes an appearance on the speaking circuit following the publication of his book, The Coffee-Stained Nation. Klein is about to become a father, but his (white) girlfriend and mother-to-be of his child, Nina (Liv Lisa Fries), still harbours fears he would break up with her and move back to his ex, Stella Gustafsson. When Klein is hit on the head, abducted by neo-Nazis, branded with a swastika on his forehead and turned into a zombie, the film enters the world of unbridled comedy that makes one or two points about how weak the characters on the anti-immigrant side really are.

Meanwhile, the not-quite-German-named Sven Stanislawski (Benno Fürmann), an ambitious but incompetent leader of a neo-Nazi cell, wants to impress his girlfriend by staging a false-flag operation that would lead to the invasion of Poland. However, he has his work cut out for him as at least two in his gang are informants, albeit with very little grey matter between them. In the opening scene, one of them, Johnny (Jacob Matschenz), struggles to write “White Power” correctly, and this emphasis on the stupidity of the neo-Nazis is a running joke in the film.

There is no question that Brüggemann’s gamble pays off, as his satirical take on Nazism – and the potential (or not) of a hate group to take up the mantle of the Führer once more – is uproarious and seemingly informed even though it is in fact little more serious than your average film coming out of Hollywood. Brüggemann seems to lose his nerve to address deep-rooted problems of integration in German society almost immediately after his opening credits, and while some of his comedy is rooted in (tragic) reality, as when we are reminded how much easier it is to get a gun in the United States than in Germany, most of it is purely for the sake of a quick laugh.

The most serious indictment of politics today comes in the form of a powerful song that accompanies the end credits. Performed by Adam Angst, the track “Splitter von Granaten” throws firebombs in the direction of Obama, the NSA and the German chancellor before this golden line is uttered: “Putin runs through woods and kills bears for pleasure and gives the green light to beat up homosexuals.” Heil briefly reminds us that while it is possible to be a (brainwashed) black Nazi, being gay is an unpardonable offense in certain circles; however, the only time a connection, tenuous though it may be, between the nationalist figures of Putin and Hitler is made is during the end credits, which appears to be another missed opportunity.

Speaking truth to power is not exactly what Heil is going for, and the film turns out to be infinitely less political than the viewer would hope for. But if you are looking for a comedy tinged here and there with an astute observation on what miserable creatures the neo-Nazis are, and how they should be mocked instead of feared, look no further.

Viewed at the 2015 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Between Valleys (2012)

In film about the same man (or is it two different men?) in divergent situations, hysteria takes away from what could have been an insightful take on how similar we are.

between-valleysBrazil
3*

Director:
Philippe Barcinski

Screenwriters:
Philippe Barcinski
Fabiana Werneck Barcinski

Director of Photography:
Walter Carvalho

Running time: 80 minutes

Original title: Entre vales

The two men look identical. One is an economist and lives with his wife and child in a nice house in São Paulo, Brazil. He is called Antonio. The other, looking much more haggard but otherwise an exact copy of Antonio, works on an enormous rubbish heap outside the large metropolis and sleeps wherever he can. His name is Vicente.

Between Valleys (Entre Vales) cuts between the two characters throughout its 80-minute duration, running out the clock by making us ask more and more questions about the two characters’ relationship to each other. Director Philippe Barcinski also uses his camera in a peculiar way that emphasises the instability of perception when it comes to a specific object, but in the end we can feel satisfied that we have been given all the information we were looking for.

The film’s pre-credits opening scene shows us Antonio (played by Ângelo Antônio) drunk behind the wheel of his car, racing down an empty road in the dead of night. We don’t know who he is yet, but this does not bode well for the character. The first scene after the credits comprises many shots of workers on a seemingly endless landfill, as truckloads of rubbish are being dumped and spread out over a vast area, and the workers scurry across the discarded trash in seemingly random patterns, picking here and there and salvaging a piece of plastic that can be exchanged for a few reais from the recycling companies.

But before we can know what this scene means, Antonio appears with his son a short distance from the site to inspect a potential location for a new landfill. Antonio seems to have it all, but over the course of the film, he will lose almost everything that he values and end up drunk in the car.

At the same time, we see the journey of Vicente, who works on the landfill but whose beard is surprisingly short for someone who appears to be homeless and who has little knowledge of the operations on the landfill. Who is this man? Is it really Antonio, at some point in the future or maybe even the past? Will we eventually see at what point Antonio became Vicente or vice versa?

These are questions that are at the forefront of our minds as we watch the film, and the film has few surprises. The two worlds collide forcefully at critical moments, as Between Valleys tips its hand very heavily by cutting back and forth between the two characters, showing the one to be shaken by events in the other one’s life.

In the end, we do get an answer, but the truth of the story is not really the goal of the director, as by the time we reach the end, we will already have formed a very clear understanding of the notion that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Unfortunately, the character arc is not entirely believeable, but it is certainly more palatable than the two scenes of hysteria that first Antonio and then his wife provoke. These two scenes actually do more harm than good to the characters, as we may easily have empathised with them, had they not wallowed in their grief with such extravagance and persistence.

But Barcinski’s one visual trick that has some weight has to do with the presentation of his close-ups of a model of a landfill, which Antonio constructs with his son. The shots often rack in and out of focus, and although we at first have no idea why such shots were allowed to appear in the film, toward the end of the story, we come to realise the full significance of this approach.

Between Valleys is not an extraordinarily thoughtful film, and its moments of high emotion elicit no such feelings in the viewer, but it is an enjoyable and unsophisticated portrayal of the unexpected course a life can take as the result of tragedy.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2013

Savages (2012)

An unconventional relationship takes a backseat in Oliver Stone’s dissapointingly conventional film about the drug business.

savagesUSA
3*

Director:
Oliver Stone

Screenwriters:
Shane Salerno

Oliver Stone
Don Winslow
Director of Photography:
Dan Mindel

Running time: 130 minutes

Drug films are usually all the same. The build-up shows one or two likeable stoners lounging on a beach dreaming of making it big, so they start off with their knowledge of fine weed and hatch a business plan that ultimately makes them so rich they don’t have any space left in their house to put all the cash. Bunkers full of genetically engineered supermarijuana appear below the house, but, before they know it, the friends have turned on each other, there is some big shootout, and everybody loses.

Oliver Stone, the director of significant films in the 1980s and 1990s who hasn’t been at the top of his game since the landmark projects that were JFK and Natural Born Killers in the early ’90s, has fashioned a drug film that feels slightly different from the others, but not much.

The central relationship – two guys and a girl – in Savages is the film’s most important hook, but while it sets up a nice bit of drama, the questions it raises (or rather, the questions some of the characters raise about this romantic combo) are never addressed. Only near the end of the film, as the two guys drive towards a meeting place in Southern California, not far from the border with Mexico, do they finally express their love for each other, but, despite the camera swirling above them, this exchange has nothing on Thelma and Louise‘s famous final moments.

The girl in the trio, O. (Blake Lively, who acts like she’s being fed her lines through an earpiece), believes her living situation is perfect, because she shares her life with these two attractive men who seem to share her willingly with each other. But, as the crime boss Elena (Salma Hayek) makes clear in one of their heart-to-heart discussions, they very likely share her only because she means less to either of them than they mean to each other. But nothing comes of this very convincing insight into the men’s psychology.

 

The two men, botany and business graduate Ben (Aaron Johnson) and former soldier in Afghanistan Chon (Taylor Kitsch), have grown some of the most potent marijuana anyone can produce, thanks to the fusion of Ben’s green fingers and Chon’s sticky fingers (he brought back some premium seeds from a tour in Central Asia). They are running a multimillion-dollar business, but Ben wants to move on and invest more in helping children in Africa.

Chon isn’t quite sure what he wants yet and spends the day, as O. puts it, giving her orgasms, while he just has “wargasms”. No, this is not the informative nor informed kind of writing one would expect from Stone, but perhaps it is not entirely out of place in this genre.

Despite their not being sure exactly where they stand – both with each other and the small business they run – they go to a meeting with a representative from a nasty-looking Mexican drug cartel, whose skills in the art of decapitation are well-known. The Mexicans make them an offer they plan to refuse, but, before they can start a new life elsewhere, O. is taken prisoner, and her life remains in the balance until the end of the film.

Elena, the head of the cartel, is a woman who seems to be in complete control of her business, one she inherited from her late husband. Hayek is unimpressive as the drug queen, and the black wig on her head in this film makes her look a bit like Elvira, though without the semi-beehive. The viewer is kept in suspense throughout as to whether her soft-spoken demeanour is actually just cold-heartedness or whether she is genuinely vulnerable, as suggested by the fraught relationship with her estranged daughter.

Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta also star in the film, both playing to type, the first as a drug dealer, the second as a bent cop also heavily involved in the trade, though one shouldn’t underestimate Del Toro’s character, who, despite a very bad mullet, can dispatch his enemies at the drop of a hat.

Savages starts with O. telling us, “Just because I’m telling you this story, doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end of it.” Stone has a nifty surprise in store for his audience at the end of the film, as a big twist is suddenly twisted out of shape even more. The film will give you your fix of mellow drama punctuated by sudden acts of violence, particularly when Del Toro wields a pistol, but overall the film lacks a vision for depicting with real insight the drama of the drug trade and the three young people caught up in it. We don’t get any real joy out of the characters using drugs, but nor do we get a firmer grip on their lives beyond their smoke-filled bubble.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Wes Anderson, stuck in a creative marshland, needs a new muse because Moonrise Kingdom is just more of the same.

moonrise-kingdomUSA
3*

Director:
Wes Anderson

Screenwriters:
Wes Anderson

Roman Coppola
Director of Photography:
Robert Yeoman

Running time: 95 minutes

The worlds of Wes Anderson, the ones he created in Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, among others, can be magical in a way few others are. His images are immediately recognisably his, and his characters are quirky and endearing despite them never being very complex.

In Moonrise Kingdom, arguably his least interesting film since his 1994 début, Bottle Rocket, he focuses his energy on a very small love story about a 12-year-old orphan boy and a 12-year-old girl with some anger management problems, and presents it in his cute but formally conscious way.

In 1965, when Sam (Jared Gilman), a nerdy boy scout, escapes from his camp on New Penzance Island, somewhere off the New England coast, and Suzy (Kara Hayward) disappears from home on the other side of the island at the same time, many parties, including Suzy’s mother’s boyfriend, the simpleminded but good-hearted policeman played by Bruce Willis, try to track him down.

Small details about Sam’s childhood are uncovered along the way, and there is an adorable flashback to the first time Sam saw Suzy, a year earlier; we are also informed a hurricane will strike very soon and, in typical Wes Anderson style, the artifice of the fictional reality is taken one step further by having a play performed that employs flood imagery.

Moonrise Kingdom’s highlights are in the vein of that famous moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones comes up against a large and very intimidating sword-wielding fellow in a Cairo marketplace, whom he quickly and unexpectedly dispatches with a mere gunshot. Anderson surprises us in ways we couldn’t have imagined.

As a result, the film is consistently charming, even though there is very little plot to hold on to. Anderson has always liked to play around with form and here too, he uses the narrator character played by Bob Balaban to inform us point-blank, in shots that are mostly empty save his head way at the bottom of the frame, about upcoming events or to fill in the background at some points.

But while the director’s playful approach to the construction of his images – including the great number of smooth lateral or vertical tracking shots that almost exclusively comprise the opening sequence – has evinced enormous creativity in the past, his film this time around is oddly stripped of emotion. Think back to the emotion conjured up in the scene by the sighting of the jaguar shark in Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Moonrise Kingdom mimics the previous films’ form but not their concomitant emotive force.

The film is more of a cardboard spectacle than any of his previous films, and Anderson seems to be treading the water of his imagination. This fact can also be surmised from the intertextual references he makes, always well integrated in his previous films but here not quite on the same level. A nifty but completely out-of-place reference to Citizen Kane occurs in the opening sequence when the camera literally passes through a table, and it’s easy to guess where Anderson got the idea of having Sam’s escape route from his tent masked by a poster.

Such references are quaint but become burdensome when we realise McDormand’s character is not all that different from the wonderful performance she gave in Almost Famous. Not to mention the Looney Tunes moment when Sam gets hit by lightning.

The director appears to have fallen into a creative rut. He would need to cut down on the big names and find his next muse, because when Jason Schwartzman briefly appears in this film, he only makes us long for the good old days of Rushmore.

For those who have never seen a Wes Anderson movie, Moonrise Kingdom will be a wonderful entry into his world. For those who are familiar with his work, the film provides more of the same – a safe retreat to gorgeously framed images and perennially eccentric characters, but nothing more than that.

Nymphomaniac: Vol. II (2013)

Lars von Trier’s sexual two-parter comes to an end with great violence but not nearly enough pleasure.

nymphomaniac-vol-iiDenmark
3*

Director:
Lars von Trier

Screenwriter:
Lars von Trier

Director of Photography:
Manuel Alberto Claro

Running time: 125 minutes

This review complements two other reviews of the film: 
– Nymphomaniac: Vol. I 
– Nymphomaniac: Volumes I and II (director’s cut) 

The last time we saw Joe, she was writhing between the sheets, but in a way different than usual: The erogenous zone between her legs had become nearly insensitive, and she could no longer reach orgasm. Obviously, for the title character of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, this is as bad as it gets.

In the first volume, Joe told the story of her rampant sexuality – mostly in bed, but almost everywhere else, too – to the kind stranger Seligman. There was her at a young age stimulating herself by sliding face-down on the wet bathroom floor, and then hooking up with strangers on a train in a face-off with her best friend who had equally promiscuous goals. She fell in love with the boy who took her virginity and kept meeting up with him throughout her life, until he eventually became the cantus firmus in the polyphony of her sex life, as so memorably demonstrated by a three-part split screen accompanied by Bach’s “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” chorale prelude for organ.

This second volume, in which the story continues, is much darker in tone than the first two hours, as it focuses on the consequences of Joe’s loss of sensation. The principal consequence is that for some reason she becomes less vigilant about using contraception and ultimately falls pregnant. At first, she takes care of her son, Marcel, but with the constant absence of her husband who travels on business, and her tumescent desire to reach orgasm once more, she embarks on an odyssey of discovery that involves sadomasochism and ducks.

We wouldn’t have put it past him, but fortunately Von Trier spares us any mention of bestiality. The ducks in questions are not quacking (an insert that provides the biggest laugh in the film) but silent. For those not in the know, hiding the “silent duck” is the sexual act of fisting.

It is a young man called K. who hides the silent duck and is an expert at a number of additional techniques to inflict terrible pain on Joe that leave her body bruised and battered, and in one case, her buttocks bleeding as the flesh is torn out of them in a way that Von Trier explicitly links with the Passion of Christ.

These scenes, violent as they are, are nothing compared with the darkest part of the film, which takes place on a parallel track and cleverly uses Von Trier’s otherwise insufferable 2009 film, Antichrist. It involves Joe’s gradual isolation and rejection of family life and leads to two stomach-churning scenes with the infant Marcel. For those who saw the opening sequence of Antichrist, a comparison with the events in this film, and the relationship between Joe and Jerôme in particular, will be very insightful.

Those who have seen Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom are also in for a last-minute surprise, although Von Trier’s reference isn’t as solid as the one to his own film.

While it certainly wasn’t Von Trier’s intention with Nymphomaniac: Vol. II to make an “enjoyable” film in the conventional sense, it isn’t as riveting as its predecessor either, and it is an easy stretch of the metaphor to say the pleasure of Nymphomaniac arrived all too prematurely. The many different tangents on which the director went off in the first film were almost always surprising and often both ridiculous and thoughtful at the same time.

Here, however, Seligman loses the plot as he finds ever more obscure historical or literary counterparts to the situations and the characters in Joe’s autobiography, at one point leading her to exclaim it one of his “weakest digressions” yet. We learn a little bit more about him, but like the single scene of Joe’s work environment, the glimpse is far from satisfactory. And yet, as Von Trier did earlier in the story with his antics about the Fibonacci numbers, our patience does pay off, as the events unfolding behind a black screen toward the end of the film can be illuminated by earlier revelations of Seligman’s character.

Nymphomaniac has presented film critics in particular with the opportunity to dissect its pornographic intentions. It was a topic I briefly dealt with (and mostly rejected) in my review of the first instalment of the two-part film. Vol. II hands us a different club to beat the director with, and this one is not only more appropriate but more brutal. It is the violence performed against women.

Sadomasochism generally, and even in the particular case of this film where there is a mutually agreed-upon – but for the viewer utterly distressing – absence of “safe words”, means there is consent for things to happen that would otherwise give rise to lawsuits of battery and assault. Von Trier films the instances of S&M violence committed against Joe in a way that never sensationalises the event but maximises our discomfort and even disgust.

In so doing, he cannot be labelled any kind of deviant or misogynist but rather a filmmaker who knows how to get us to squirm without recklessly stumbling across the very apparent ethical minefield. He manages the same feat later on when Joe faces a man whose urges would be criminal, not to mention incontestably monstrous, if acted upon, but both Joe and Von Trier neatly draw the line between victim and aggressor, in the process surprising us by revealing, in this and the previous situation, human beings behind what at first seemed to be thugs.

Nymphomaniac, Vol. II is quite different from the first film in terms of tone and doesn’t keep our attention as easily. Seligman speaks too much, the chapter headings become a bit contrived, and the story-within-a-story simply becomes tiring. As the lead, Charlotte Gainsbourg seems chronically depressed, both in the present and in her flashbacks (she takes over here from Stacy Martin, who played Young Joe in Vol. I), and her demeanour infects our experience.

Von Trier continues to frustrate his audience with odd choices of characters and sudden narrative twists, but there is no denying his Nymphomaniac is unlike anything he or anyone else has done since the days of Dogville and Manderlay, and these are all the films of a master filmmaker.

Boyhood (2014)

Childhood and adolescence are explored in film that was shot over more than 10 years with the same cast.

boyhoodUSA
3*

Director:
Richard Linklater

Screenwriter:
Richard Linklater

Directors of Photography:
Lee Daniel

Shane Kelly

Running time: 160 minutes

Sprawling but not unwieldy, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood takes the eventful but not overly dramatised life of an ordinary teenager from a broken home to construct an epic tale of one boy’s slow transition to manhood. His role models – a mother whose many husbands always end up drinking the relationship into calamity and a father who doesn’t hold a steady job and seems to be entirely carefree – don’t have the strongest or the most ambitious personalities in the world, but they form him nonetheless in their own ways.

Linklater shot the film over an unusually lengthy period of time (from 2002 until 2013), using the same trio of actors at its core: Ellar Coltrane as Mason Jr., Lorelei Linklater as his older sister, Samantha, and Patricia Arquette as their mother, Olivia. Ethan Hawke also features in many of the scenes as the children’s biological father, Mason Sr., who has already divorced Olivia by the time we meet them all in the opening scenes.

Obviously, Boyhood’s peculiar production schedule is the primary reason many readers will be intrigued to watch it. But another, related rationale better explains the attraction to the film: The process of aging has been compressed into 160 minutes, and time flows much more quickly, perhaps too quickly, as we come to realise towards the end, when we sympathise with Olivia during the most heartrending moments of the production.

While it lasts, as Marcus Jr. says, the present is “always right now”: That is what we deal with. It is only at the end of a sequence of these moments that we can take a step back and consider the history of our lives, however long or short they might be, and appreciate the people who have been there with us through it all.

But the first act already points towards a life of memories that might not be shown but are unequivocally present in the lives of the characters. It is a powerful moment when the family ups and moves from their small town to Houston, selling their house and repainting the inside, including the years of pen markings of the children’s heights in the door frame that vanish with the stroke of a brush.

With a title like Boyhood, one would expect the focus to be solely on Marcus Jr., but the importance of his mother’s turbulent life, tied to and impacting his own, becomes more and more clear as the film progresses. Despite the many years of them living together, the inevitable cutting of the chord still comes as a punch to the stomach, as we realise she has kind of been taken for granted.

The film contains many beautiful moments, perhaps the best of which is captured in a long, unbroken take (calling to mind the work Linklater did with Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunset, the opposite of this film in that it took place in a single afternoon) between Marcus Jr., walking back from school, and a girl on a bicycle next to him. The girl is teasing out Marcus’s feelings for one of her friends, Lee Anne, but in the process of a single camera take, we see these two actually ought to strike up a relationship. The moment is comparable to a short but strong exchange in You, Me and Everyone We Know, as we see an entire world can change within the space of a few words exchanged between people who were strangers when the shot started.

Overall, however, the film has a meandering quality that many viewers might find frustrating. We don’t have any sense that the story is going anywhere, except that time is passing, and everyone is growing older. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but in terms of content, there is no clear issue that needs to be resolved or question that needs to be answered.

Many would argue this is what life is like, and that may be true, but Boyhood would have benefited from having a tighter focus on the narrative as it relates directly and visibly to the development of Mason’s character. Furthermore, Mason is simply too nice to relate to, especially over such an extended period of time. He never seems to do anything he feels bad about, or anything that embarrasses him. A scene with bullies at school goes nowhere, and Linklater patches up the boy’s frustration with his drunken stepfather’s decision with ellipses that show off spectacular scenes of conflict rather than seething scenes of anger, which are sorely missed by their absence.

It is also understandable and even commendable that Linklater didn’t show too much of his own daughter growing up (she plays Mason’s sister), but we lose any indication that she has much of a relationship with her brother, a bond that could have supported or undermined the boy in a way that would almost certainly have been successful with the audience.

Boyhood may be original, even unique, in its treatment of the teenage years of a single character by the same actor, but the final product feels too much like a documentary about a mostly ordinary family, leaving us with the question why the director felt so compelled to tell their story. Yes, people grow old and experience ups and downs, and usually they don’t grow as wise as the other movies tend to suggest. Is that an insight that warrants a running time of 160 minutes? Time will tell.

Viewed at the 2014 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Shame (2011)

Steve McQueen’s second film is all about one man’s sexual desire and what he does to get what he craves.

shame-mcqueenUK/USA
3*

Director:
Steve McQueen

Screenwriters:
Steve McQueen

Abi Morgan
Director of Photography:
Sean Bobbitt

Running time: 100 minutes

He looks them up and down, everywhere he goes: women, men, couples – they all find him seductive. He goes after them, and he gets what he wants, every time.

Shame is the story of Brandon Sullivan, a young executive who is the poster boy for unapologetic hedonism until he is confronted with the more serious demands of intimacy from two women in his life: his sister and a co-worker looking for more than a fling.

In one of the first scenes of the film, Sullivan watches a young woman sitting opposite him on the New York subway. She returns his gaze, clearly enjoying the attention, though trying to hide her excitement in this public space. At the next stop, she gets up and grabs onto the pole next to him: She is wearing a wedding ring. But he doesn’t relent and instead pursues her down the tunnels of the underground.

Brandon is physically in very good shape, clean-cut, well-coiffed, with a good job downtown and an apartment near Gramercy Park in Manhattan, but the ever-present windows and glass dividers separate him from the rest of civilization. He is used to being in charge of his life, and especially his sex life: He prefers to pay for sex in his own apartment or seek it out in public spaces, where people can be easily discarded, but never permits a greater measure of intimacy. When he is not out in bars looking for fun, he sits in his spotless apartment and masturbates in front of his computer screen. He is young and enjoys one-night stands and the general remoteness of his sex partners, sometimes a world away in front of a webcam.

He is forward without being aggressive and plays off his good looks and charm; he knows how to speak to a woman, and almost always he benefits from a comparison with his womanising boss, David. David compliments himself as a way to pick up girls, while Brandon compliments the girls themselves and is much more successful than his pal, even when David is the one doling out one pickup line after another.

Brandon’s bachelor lifestyle is upended, however, when his drama-queen sister, Sissy, arrives to stay with him for a few nights. Not only does she invade his privacy and walk in on him while he’s polishing his family jewels in the bathroom, but she represents a genuine attack on his licentious way of living. The very first evening at his place, she spends hours crying on the phone while she speaks to her boyfriend, telling him how much she loves him. It goes without saying this is the kind of debasement of which Brandon would never allow himself to be a victim.

The relationship between Brandon and his needy sister is evidently a toxic one, and there are hints of a traumatic childhood that are never elaborated on. The tension between them is made all the more agonising by the use of very long takes, one of director Steve McQueen’s trademarks. We know this situation won’t end well, but until the end we have no idea where all of this is headed.

One reason for our disorientation is the structure of the film. At various intervals, McQueen expertly weaves together two, sometimes three different storylines and timeframes to create a mystery guided by our impressions. These obscurities are sometimes quickly resolved and add another level of slight discomfort to the proceedings on-screen.

Shame is McQueen’s second feature film, and while it is in many respects more conventional than his début masterpiece, Hunger, in which Michael Fassbender (who plays the lead in Shame) starred as the Irish republican Bobby Sands, the director doesn’t nail the material the way one would have expected. Technically, the film is beyond reproach, but unlike Hunger, which is set almost entirely inside the Maze prison outside Belfast, the technical aspects of Shame do not engender an experience capable of encompassing an equally flaccid narrative, this time set all over New York City.

There are moments of cinematic grandeur, but the film is also the victim of the director’s fear of explaining too much, and, in the end, too much is left unsaid and unshown. That is a real shame.

The Endless River (2015)

A brutal farm murder leads to more questions than answers in third film by South Africa’s most acclaimed contemporary director, which stubbornly carves out its own path

The Endless RiverSouth Africa
3*

Director:
Oliver Hermanus

Screenwriter:
Oliver Hermanus

Director of Photography:
Chris Lotz

Running time: 110 minutes

Don’t let the opening credits fool you: Despite the balmy, sunset-swept imagery – replete with cloud-stained skies of twilight and golden fields of wheat – that greets the viewer of The Endless River at the outset, the mood shifts very quickly as we witness a man’s release from prison, the murder of an innocent family and the two central characters’ near-futile search for post-traumatic meaning.

Oliver Hermanus’s third film is nothing if not ambitious: Using the tragedy of a farm murder to propel the narrative forward, this is simultaneously an examination of one man’s attempts to cope with his grief, a whodunnit and a woman’s yearning for affection. However, the presentation becomes more and more fragmented and ellipses ever more frequent as the film reaches a conclusion that is even more open-ended than that of the director’s previous film, Beauty (Skoonheid). The director is firmly in control, but as both content and meaning become elusive, dependent on that which is unseen (or rather, deliberately concealed), most viewers are unlikely to remain as attached to the material and the characters as they are at the outset.

The title nominally refers to the location, the small town of Riviersonderend in South Africa’s Western Cape, even though none of the characters ever utters the name. In this rural setting, we find Percy Solomons, a young man who has just been released after four years in prison. His petite wife, Tiny, who works as a waitress at a local diner, is optimistic about their future together, although her mother, whose house the three of them share with each other, openly shares her doubts around the breakfast table. The fabulous Denise Newman plays the mother, Mona, who is as proud and devoted to her child as was the case with the title character in Hermanus’s stunning début feature, Shirley Adams, which she also portrayed; unfortunately, she is sidelined here halfway through the film.

Into this uncertainty tumbles Gilles Estève, a Frenchman with a murky past (a prominent ink stain on his thumb is never explained) who moved into a farmhouse just outside town about a year ago, although oddly enough he has not made any acquaintances. The film’s first major turning point is the murder of Gilles’s two young boys, and the murder and rape of his wife. This violent turn in the narrative only has extradiegetic sound in the form of Braam du Toit’s lilting score as a counterpoint to the horrific events on-screen. But while this artistic choice (not to mention the scene’s graceful camera moves) may appear peculiar at first, the purpose quickly becomes clear as the director’s intention is not so much to portray brutal realism as it is to attune us to the emotional journeys on which Gilles and Tiny embark.

Visually much less self-conscious than Hermanus’s previous film, which relied heavily on static or long takes, The Endless River has one robustly cinematic moment, namely the unbroken take in which we move ever closer to Percy as he makes up his mind whether to participate in a crime. Comparable to the opening shot of Beauty and a similar, albeit static, shot in Shirley Adams (although all three shots are strikingly different in their own ways, a variation for which the director deserves substantial praise), this kind of moment perfectly uses the visuals to unite the viewer with the character’s frame of mind in an unusual yet unostentatious way.

The strands of the film with which the director weaves his narrative are often strong but frayed at the tips, as we frequently have to guess how fundamental parts of the story develop. While this strategy of withholding crucial information from the viewer can help focus our attention and keep our minds active, it becomes annoying in the final act, when we seem to skip from one awkward dinner to the next while the action in between – which is of enormous importance in order to understand the film’s key relationship – is almost entirely left out of the film.

What hurts The Endless River even more, however, is the sense that Gilles, while visibly enraged at the police force’s seeming inability to solve the homicide, never thinks of his family beyond the fact of their murder. He shuts his past completely out of his mind to the point that he even refuses to look at a list of items taken from his home after it has been burgled. This may very well be his way of coping with loss, but there is not even one crack in this façade, which makes for a dramatically uninteresting character arc.

And yet, it is a testament to Hermanus’s talent as a filmmaker that we have the impression throughout – with the exception of that quick succession of homogeneous dinner scenes in the third act – that he is keeping a tight rein on the presentation of his material. Everything feels like it belongs to the same story, although, as mentioned above, one can fault him for not providing enough of the story to fill in the gaps that are as vast as the vistas in the opening credits sequence.

The film is like a jigsaw puzzle that we start constructing but realise halfway through that with every piece we place, another disappears from the box altogether. Things will likely make slightly more sense on a second viewing, but there is a palpable, perverse decision on the part of the filmmaker not to meet the viewer’s expectations.

Hermanus does not make it easy on the viewer. Instead of coming together, the story appears to unravel more and more until we realise this is a road trip that will flow forever, reaching the sea somewhere far into the future and definitely happening – like so much else we want to know about this story – offscreen. Some may find this refreshing, but given the early development of the story, most are likely to regard it as unnecessarily defiant.